Power play: Desert Rock's foes remain stubborn as public hearings loom
By Gail Binkly
The desert sun beats hard upon a pair of small trailers, a pressed-wood building, and a Porta-Potty sitting on a rise, surrounded by acres and acres of sparse grass. On lawn chairs in the shade of the structures, seven members of the extended family of Navajo elder Alice Gilmore, plus three visitors, sip water and talk.
This modest site looks like the middle of nowhere, but in fact it’s at the center of a raging dispute that has divided the Navajo Nation.
A quarter-mile away a drill rig is probing the ground for water, in preparation for the construction of the proposed 1,500-megawatt Desert Rock power plant.
Sithe Global Power, LLC, and the Diné Power Authority, an enterprise of the Navajo Nation, are pushing to build the coal-fired power plant on 592 acres of reservation land 30 miles southwest of Farmington, N.M. They don’t have any buyers lined up for the power, but they’re sure there are many potential customers across the burgeoning Southwest.
Not everyone believes the plant will be built.
Alice Gilmore’s family and other foes of Desert Rock are fighting hard to stop construction. They believe the proposed power plant is wrong for a region that already sees clouds of pollution from two nearby facilities. They urge the tribe to “just say no” (“Doodá”) to another coal-fired unit.
So far, the tribe has said yes. The tribal council has already voted in favor of the plant, and the Navajo Nation has pledged to waive two-thirds – $1 billion of $1.5 billion – of the tax revenues Desert Rock would have paid over the next 29 years.
In May, the Bureau of Indian Affairs released a draft environmental impact statement that gives a go-ahead for Desert Rock, saying there are no major environmental reasons to oppose it. (See www.desertrockenergy.com for the full EIS.) Public hearings on the draft EIS are scheduled around the region this month.
The document says emissions of air pollutants will indeed increase if the plant is built, and notes that the area is already “disproportionately affected” by power plants and mining, but says cumulative impacts “would be below health-protective federal standards.”
The draft EIS says not building the plant would mean the loss of $43 million annually in anticipated revenues for the Navajo Nation, where poverty and unemployment are high.
But many tribal members are skeptical about rosy promises of jobs, money and prosperity. They have seen the toxic legacy left on the reservation by uranium-mining in the middle of the 20th Century, and the drawing-down of a pristine aquifer by the nowdefunct Black Mesa coal mine near Kayenta, Ariz. They see high rates of asthma and other diseases among residents living near the 1,800-megawatt San Juan Generating Station and 2,040- megawatt Four Corners Power Plant.
Sithe Global is a privately held company based in Houston, Texas. Financial backers for Desert Rock are Blackstone Capital, a giant privateequity and hedge-fund firm, and Reservoir Capital.
Can anyone stop such powerful corporations from achieving their aims? It seems like a tough task, but opponents of Desert Rock remain steadfast, buoyed by sheer stubbornness and an ineffable optimism.
“It’s not going to happen,” says Eloise Brown firmly.
Brown is president of Doodá Desert Rock, a small grassroots group fighting the plant. Also on their side are Diné CARE, a Navajo environmental group, and other environmental groups such as the Durango-based San Juan Citizens Alliance.
Sarah White, president of Diné CARE, is likewise hopeful. Speaking by phone, she said, “Oh, yes, we can still stop it.”
Since Dec. 12, opponents of the plant, led by Brown and her family, have maintained a vigil at this isolated site. Through chilly snows, springtime mud and now the relentless heat, they’ve taken turns manning the site – making cell-phone calls, compiling lists, writing letters, hosting members of the press. Supporters occasionally jolt over washboarded reservation roads to bring them water, flour and canned food. One gave them equipment to provide solar and wind power. Sometimes there’s even a sort of party, such as on New Year’s Eve, when there was drumming and dancing.
There have been ugly incidents, too. Brown accuses some workers of nearly running over protesters. A sheepdog belonging to Alice Gilmore was skinned and left at the encampment, according to the critics’ web site (www.desertrock- blog.com); in May, Brown’s home and car were vandalized.
But much of the time the site is very quiet.
The stark encampment could not pose a greater contrast to the picture painted by a Jan. 27, 2007, New York Times article about the planned 60thbirthday party of Stephen Schwarzman, billionaire co-founder of Blackstone — featuring 1,500 friends and dignitaries feasting and partying in a lavish, 35,000-square-foot hall.
Meanwhile, the Desert Rock protesters were sleeping around campfires to keep warm.
It’s a classic David-and-Goliath struggle.
But the Davids have already scored one huge success: dissuading the New Mexico state legislature from granting an $85 million tax break to the power plant, something Sithe and Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley, Jr., had sought in the last legislative session.
‘My family’s lands’
The Desert Rock vigil began in December when Brown and some family members were checking out the plant site, which lies on lands where the family has long held grazing permits. Although Desert Rock had yet to obtain permits to take any action, Brown’s group found equipment and a “stub” where a well would be drilled. Then a contractor drove up in a truck, and Brown refused to let him pass.
“I told him, ‘You can’t go in, sir’. These are my family’s lands.”
The worker eventually left, and Brown’s family set up a blockade. “Little did I know I would still be here six months later,” she said.
She called tribal police for help, “but that turned out to be the wrong thing to do,” she said. “They started escorting Sithe Global workers in.”
Days passed and the vigil continued. Then-tribal Vice President Frank Dayish visited and expressed concern about the elders being in the cold; later, DPA workers brought some firewood.
Shirley himself visited the camp once, but the meeting accomplished little, Brown said. He arrived 2 1/2 hours late, she said, accompanied by some 20 police panel vehicles.
“He just says, ‘Well, you know where I stand on these issues’,” Brown said. “We had all talked before about how we would be polite and not swear or anything. Then Faith [Gilmore, a relative] stands on a table and says, ‘Why don’t you just get the hell out of here?’”
“I forgot about the swearing,” admitted Faith, a firebrand who just graduated from high school and is eagerly involved in the Desert Rock battle.
Not long after Shirley’s visit, courts said the protesters couldn’t block Sithe’s access, and Navajo police dismantled the camp, even taking away the protesters’ stew and coffee.
“They were eating KFC in front of us,” Faith recalled with a wry laugh.
After a flurry of legal wrangling, Sithe obtained a “categorical exclusion” from the BIA allowing the company to do preliminary work without an environmental impact statement. The courts ordered Sithe to leave the protesters alone and the protesters to do the same to the workers.
Protesters moved to another site, sleeping around a campfire in the cold. Eventually Brown, her husband and a supporter from Taos, N.M., scraped together enough money to build a small structure to keep the elders warm.
The encampment now is on a hill offering a good view of Sithe’s activities at the drilling site.
Tumbleweeds and salt cedar
Opponents say their concerns go beyond the power plant per se. Eddie Gilmore, sitting in the shade with other family members, said he is concerned about the coal-mining required to feed the plant. The Desert Rock proposal calls for the continuation of surface coal-mining at the nearby Navajo Mine.
“For me, I don’t want to see the mining. I don’t want the plant to be built,” he said. “I was born and raised in these areas. I don’t want them to destroy the land.”
He said he used to do reclamation work for the Navajo Mine, which supplies Arizona Public Service’s Four Corners Power Plant. “They try to put the land back the way it was,” he said. “They put 16 inches of topsoil over the spoils. But the only things that will grow out there are the tumbleweeds and salt cedar.”
Pauline Gilmore, his sister, worries about her livestock and where the family would have to relocate. “They don’t care about our sheep and cattle and horses. I have them about 3 miles over there. Where we going to move or stay away to get fresh air? They already have two places making the smoke and killing our people.”
She said Shirley is worse than previous presidents Peterson Zah and Peter MacDonald. “This one, he really gives us the trouble,” she said.
The project would also include a water well – the one being drilled – with a pipeline to the power plant. Critics wonder whether that’s the best use of water in an arid land. They were aghast one day to see water shooting out from the test site, hundreds of gallons going to waste.
“Water was shooting up way into the sky,” said White, who lives about 8 miles from the site. “It’s sad knowing they’re pumping that water, that sacred water that should be there for our next generation. I look to the children and young teens and say, ‘What are they going to have?’ To me it’s a waste for water to be used for that power plant.”
Desert Rock foes say the tribal government has turned a deaf ear to their concerns. About 30 protesters were blocked from Shirley’s second-term inauguration on Jan. 9, even though they had prior permission to be there, Brown said.
Dinah Gilmore said tribal chapters have been strong-armed into voting in favor of the plant, and opposition has been ignored. She said at a meeting of the Burnham Chapter, the president asked for a show of hands of those opposing Desert Rock. The majority raised their hands, but he blatantly ignored them and announced that the majority were in favor, she said.
But Desert Rock’s defenders say they are the majority and that the plant would provide a desperately-needed boost to the tribal economy.
“The Navajo Nation overwhelmingly supports the Desert Rock Energy Project, and we need it,” Shirley pleaded in a letter to a state legislative committee considering the tax break. “Today, every highway leading off the Navajo Nation leads to a flourishing economy on our borders. And every highway leading onto the Navajo Nation leads to economic silence. . . .
“Desert Rock is not just another power plant,” he wrote. “It will not exploit our people and lay waste our land and air. It will be the cleanest coal-fired power plant built in the U.S. today. It is the largest economic development project in Native America.”
But state Rep. Ray Begaye (D-San Juan County) replied to the legislative committee with a Feb. 27 letter contesting Shirley’s claims and accusing the tribe of squandering numerous economic-development opportunities through “political hog-wash and gerrymandering at the Navajo Nation capitol.” Among the projects stalled or halted, he wrote, were an egg-manufacturing plant in Huerfano Chapter, a potato- chip manufacturing plant, a large shelter for women and children victimized by domestic violence, and the Boys and Girls Club, which closed.
“The only way to unlock the gridlock of tribal bureaucracy is to re-organize the Navajo Nation government system,” he said.
Begaye also said that Shirley was “misinformed” that Desert Rock would be the cleanest coal-fired power plant in the U.S. “If that is his sentiment, then support Representative Peter Wirth’s amendment that matches the California Emission Control requirement,” Begaye wrote.
Desert Rock would dump 10.5 million or more tons of carbon dioxide into the air every year. That means it isn’t clean enough to meet California’s emissions standards, so that state will therefore not buy its electricity.
Still, Desert Rock would be far less polluting than the nearby power plants. The San Juan and Four Corners plant spew 67,000 tons of nitrogen oxide and 37,000 tons of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere each year. Desert Rock would emit just 3,500 tons of each pollutant.
Sithe Global also signed an agreement with the tribe May 15 promising to sponsor projects to reduce sulfurdioxide emissions at other power plants or sources near Desert Rock. The total reductions would be 110 percent of the sulfur-dioxide emissions from Desert Rock, meaning emissions would be reduced from their current level.
And mercury emissions would be far lower than the existing plants’.
Going to the people
That doesn’t sway opponents, who urge the tribe to move away from traditional energy and into renewables. “We need solar and wind,” White said. “This would be a good place for those.”
Now that opponents have staved off New Mexico’s tax break for Sithe, at least until the next legislative session, they are turning their sights to getting individual chapters to pass a resolution opposing Desert Rock.
The Sanostee and Leupp chapters have already passed it, Brown said; she will be visiting the White Horse Lake and Blue Gap/Tachee chapters soon.
“Our goal is to get 56 in our favor out of the 110 [tribal chapters],” she said. “The more we educate the people, the more they are against this,” said Victoria Alba, a relative of the Gilmores. “I think we have changed a lot of minds.”
“Yes, it can be stopped,” she said. “It’s not just about the power plant. It’s also the strip-mining, the tearing up of the earth, and the relocation, tearing up people’s homes where they have lived for years. And these people don’t have power or running water. The Navajo Mine has provided a little solar system for people. But they still don’t have running water or power. That’s what gets to me. That’s not justice. That’s abusing the people. You use their things and leave them with nothing.”
“We just have to keep fighting,” Alba said. “It doesn’t matter if they’re a big company. They probably thought we weren’t going to last. But I believe we’re going to win this. I don’t think people are so stupid. There’s already two big power plants here and if you look at the Navajo Nation nobody’s become so rich from those. If we back off now, we’re to blame.”