Energy-starved utilities and the exploitation of the Navajo: The Forgotten People

It’s the kind of story that can easily mischaracterize the aspirations of the “Forgotten People,” who are anything but abandoned. They represent the indigenous tribes living on the Navajo Reservation, a 27,425 square-mile sector bordering parts of northeastern Arizona, southeastern Utah, and northwestern New Mexico

Their struggles are not unlike other Native Americans displaced during our winning of the West, enduring untold hardships from living on lands forced upon them. Like other indigenous people, they push and shove against excessive governmental controls, as well as outside attempts from companies wanting to exploit their natural resources.

Still, they remain the Forgotten People, the Navajo (Dine’).

Troublesome times marked the period prior to the 1974 Navajo-Hopi Land Settlement Act when the U.S. government settled an ongoing land dispute involving tribal members living on each other’s land.

The issue was resolved through the forced relocation of over 10,000 tribal members, who reluctantly accepted fenced-in boundaries. Many tribal members felt it was initiated to open the doors further to corporate mining operations, particularly the subsurface minerals on the reservation.

The Mother-Lode at Black Mesa

You could say that the idea of mining the reservation’s coal emerged back in 1909. That’s when anthracite—over 8-billion tons of it—was surveyed in-and-around the Black Mesa region of Arizona. The U.S. geologist was Herbert E. Gregory.

As a result of his 193-page report, energy-starved visionaries focused on the Four Corners area, making plans to tap its abundant mineral resources.

In the 1950s, an affiliation of energy companies, some 21 utilities called the  Western Energy Supply and Transmission Associates (WEST),  joined up to build coal and nuclear  plants, all fueled by the reservation’s coal and uranium resources.

Tribal Councils Approve Coal Ppermits

Forced relocations of the Navajo-Hopi prevailed as tribal councils okayed permits to allow coal mining and water rights to Peabody Energy. Ultimately, though, the reservation recorded higher-than-normal cancer cases and breathing illnesses, not to mention polluted surface water  and a critical draw-down of the Navajo Aquifer; the latter caused by an approved slurry pipeline to carry coal 237 miles to what was once the Mohave Generating Station.

During these times, not a single independent health study was ever conducted to expose the Navajo Nation’s risks from coal’s toxic pollutants.

Indeed, coal was not to be denied as a cheap source of energy. Moreover, and as other geologists in Gregory’s survey exclaimed, the “economic value of these gem stones’” were indisputable.

“Go East!”

In the 1920s, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) searched further and decided those southwest coal resources would do just fine, thank you, to help feed the maw of Southern California’s growing population.

Ironically, the state pushed for tapping power from coal-fired generation units located out-of-state in a bid to keep their own air clean; they favored Arizona’s Navajo Generation Station (NGO) located 750 miles northeast of Los Angeles near Page, Arizona and eventually owned 21 percent NGO. Too, Southern California Edison inked a 48 percent stake in the Four Corners Power Plant (FCPP) near Farmington, New Mexico.

Beginning in 1969, and through 2005, FCPP’s coal-fired generators were fed from the Black Mesa strip mines operated international coal giant, Peabody Energy. Once-again, many Navajo-Hopi tribal members had to move from their homes to allow for the land to be strip mined, interrupting the livelihood of many who relied on subsistence farming and raising of livestock.

Ancestral remains and artifacts mishandled?

It’s easy to demonize Peabody Energy as stories surfaced about how they handled ancestral burial remains and artifacts. As hideous and disrespectful as it may sound, the items were placed in cardboard boxes and shipped for curation to the highly-reputable Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.

But complaints surface on how many of the remains were removed without notifying tribal members; this, even after the enactment of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) of 1990.

Today, if you ask The Navajo Nation Historic Preservation Department about Peabody’s handling of these remains and artifacts, you’ll receive a copy of a memorandum that says, in part:

“We wish to clarify concerns that you have raised concerning the control and transfer of the collection of artifacts and human remains (hereinafter referred to as “cultural resources”) excavated by Southern Illinois University, Center for Archaeological Investigations from Black Mesa between 196? to 1983. The work was completed under a Navajo Nation Antiquities Permit, issued by the Navajo Nation Parks and Recreations Department in 1967 and an the American Antiquities Act of 1906 16 USC 431433.”

Still, there are second-hand reports of non-Native archaeologists working with the Navajo Historic Preservation Department who raised eyebrows during public hearings, by offering an alternate solution of how best to handle the burial remains.

As reported in Jennafer Waggoner-Yellowhorse’s overview on the Black Mesa Archaeological Project, the archaeologists were “publicly witnessed at hearings”  to say that an easier way to dispense of remains should be considered discussed, such as:

“…grinding (burial) remains like manure and digging unmarked pits in which to dump them is the more preferred solution…” 

Such are the indignities and exploitation suffered by the Navajo Nation on a reservation faced with 40 percent unemployment. To many, it’s the mining jobs and power-plant operation that continues to provide good wages.

The Navajo Mine

Of course,  the long-term health prospects remain questionable after years of exposure to pollutants. So too is the concern in the decline of their Navajo Aquifer and surface streams located under an area of Black Mesa.

In an earlier-than-planned shift, but one mandated by California law, the LADWP will sell its stake in the Navajo Generating Station by 2016, and stop using coal-fueled power sources by 2025.

But to the Navajo Nation, coal will continue to play a big part in fueling the generators at the Four Corners Power Plant near Farmington, New Mexico for distribution to include Phoenix/Tucson, Southern California, New Mexico and El Paso, Texas.

Most recently, the Navajo Mine was sold by BHP to the Navajo Transitional Energy Company, LLC (NTEC). It will be the sole source of coal for the FCPP site. The NTEC is required to set aside 10 percent of its profits to develop alternative energy solutions to the fossil fuel.

FCPP opened in the 1960s, its five coal-fired generating units spewing 12.4 tons of sulfur dioxide in 2009 alone. Today, three of those generators have been shut down to comply with EPA requirements; the remaining two generators are not expected to need an extraordinary investment to meet EPA standards.

Global warming is truly real, particularly when its fallout includes abuse and exploitation of horrific proportions. And, in the case of many in the Navajo community, when it erases all hope that someday “good health” will ever return.

Image credit: Alex Proimus, courtesy flickr

Doug Pelton
Doug Pelton
Doug is a freelance writer and journalist.

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