Published: October 25, 2010
BLUE GAP, Ariz. — For decades, coal has been an economic lifeline for the Navajos, even as mining and power plant emissions dulled the blue skies and sullied the waters of their sprawling reservation.
But today there are stirrings of rebellion. Seeking to reverse years of environmental degradation and return to their traditional values, many Navajos are calling for a future built instead on solar farms, ecotourism and microbusinesses.
“At some point we have to wean ourselves,” Earl Tulley, a Navajo housing official, said of coal as he sat on the dirt floor of his family’s hogan, a traditional circular dwelling.
Mr. Tulley, who is running for vice president of the Navajo Nation in the Nov. 2 election, represents a growing movement among Navajos that embraces environmental healing and greater reliance on the sun and wind, abundant resources on a 17 million-acre reservation spanning Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.
“We need to look at the bigger picture of sustainable development,” said Mr. Tulley, the first environmentalist to run on a Navajo presidential ticket.
With nearly 300,000 members, the Navajo Nation is the country’s largest tribe, according to Census Bureau estimates, and it has the biggest reservation. Coal mines and coal-fired power plants on the reservation and on lands shared with the Hopi provide about 1,500 jobs and more than a third of the tribe’s annual operating budget, the largest source of revenue after government grants and taxes.
At the grass-roots level, the internal movement advocating a retreat from coal is both a reaction to the environmental damage and the health consequences of mining — water loss and contamination, smog and soot pollution — and a reconsideration of centuries-old tenets.
In Navajo culture, some spiritual guides say, digging up the earth to retrieve resources like coal and uranium (which the reservation also produced until health issues led to a ban in 2005) is tantamount to cutting skin and represents a betrayal of a duty to protect the land.
“As medicine people, we don’t extract resources,” said Anthony Lee Sr., president of the Diné Hataalii Association, a group of about 100 healers known as medicine men and women.
But the shift is also prompted by economic realities. Tribal leaders say the Navajo Nation’s income from coal has dwindled 15 percent to 20 percent in recent years as federal and state pollution regulations have imposed costly restrictions and lessened the demand for mining.
Two coal mines on the reservation have shut down in the last five years. One of them, the Black Mesa mine, ceased operations because the owners of the power plant it fed in Laughlin, Nev., chose to close the plant in 2005 rather than spend $1.2 billion on retrofitting it to meet pollution controls required by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Early this month, the E.P.A. signaled that it would require an Arizona utility to install $717 million in emission controls at another site on the reservation, the Four Corners Power Plant in New Mexico, describing it as the highest emitter of nitrous oxide of any power plant in the nation. It is also weighing costly new rules for the Navajo Generating Station in Arizona.
And states that rely on Navajo coal, like California, are increasingly imposing greenhouse gas emissions standards and requiring renewable energy purchases, banning or restricting the use of coal for electricity.
So even as they seek higher royalties and new markets for their vast coal reserves, tribal officials say they are working to draft the tribe’s first comprehensive energy policy and are gradually turning to casinos, renewable energy projects and other sources for income.
This year the tribal government approved a wind farm to be built west of Flagstaff, Ariz., to power up to 20,000 homes in the region. Last year, the tribal legislative council also created a Navajo Green Economy Commission to promote environmentally friendly jobs and businesses.
“We need to create our own businesses and control our destiny,” said Ben Shelly, the Navajo Nation vice president, who is now running for president against Lynda Lovejoy, a state senator in New Mexico and Mr. Tulley’s running mate.
That message is gaining traction among Navajos who have reaped few benefits from coal or who feel that their health has suffered because of it.
Curtis Yazzie, 43, for example, lives in northeastern Arizona without running water or electricity in a log cabin just a stone’s throw from the Kayenta mine.
Tribal officials, who say some families live so remotely that it would cost too much to run power lines to their homes, have begun bringing hybrid solar and wind power to some of the estimated 18,000 homes on the reservation without electricity. But Mr. Yazzie says that air and water pollution, not electricity, are his first concerns.
“Quite a few of my relatives have made a good living working for the coal mine, but a lot of them are beginning to have health problems,” he said. “I don’t know how it’s going to affect me.”
One of those relatives is Daniel Benally, 73, who says he lives with shortness of breath after working for the Black Mesa mine in the same area for 35 years as a heavy equipment operator. Coal provided for his family, including 15 children from two marriages, but he said he now believed that the job was not worth the health and environmental problems.
“There’s no equity between benefit and damage,” he said in Navajo through a translator.
About 600 mine, pipeline and power plant jobs were affected when the Mohave Generating Station in Nevada and Peabody’s Black Mesa mine shut down.
But that also meant that Peabody stopped drawing water from the local aquifer for the coal slurry carried by an underground pipeline to the power plant — a victory for Navajo and national environmental groups active in the area, like the Sierra Club.
Studies have shown serious declines in the water levels of the Navajo aquifer after decades of massive pumping for coal slurry operations. And the E.P.A. has singled out the Four Corners Power Plant and the Navajo Generating Station as two of the largest air polluters in the country, affecting visibility in 27 of the area’s “most pristine and precious natural areas,” including the Grand Canyon.
The regional E.P.A. director, Jared Blumenfeld, said the plants were the nation’s No. 1 and No. 4 emitters of nitrogen oxides, which form fine particulates resulting in cases of asthma attacks, bronchitis, heart attacks and premature deaths.
Environmentalists are now advocating for a more diversified Navajo economy and trying to push power plants to invest in wind and solar projects.
“It’s a new day for the Navajo people,” said Lori Goodman, an official with Diné Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment, a group founded 22 years ago by Mr. Tulley. “We can’t be trashing the land anymore.”
Both presidential candidates in the Navajo election have made the pursuit of cleaner energy a campaign theme, but significant hurdles remain, including that Indian tribes, as sovereign entities, are not eligible for tax credits that help finance renewable energy projects elsewhere.
And replacing coal revenue would not be easy. The mining jobs that remain, which pay union wages, are still precious on a reservation where unemployment is estimated at 50 percent to 60 percent.
“Mining on Black Mesa,” Peabody officials said in a statement, “has generated $12 billion in direct and implied economic benefits over the past 40 years, created thousands of jobs, sent thousands of students to college and restored lands to a condition that is as much as 20 times more productive than native range.”
They added, “Renewables won’t come close to matching the scale of these benefits.”
But many Navajos see the waning of coal as inevitable and are already looking ahead. Some residents and communities are joining together or pairing with outside companies to pursue small-scale renewable energy projects on their own.
Wahleah Johns, a member of the new Navajo Green Economy Commission, is studying the feasibility of a small solar project on reclaimed mining lands with two associates. In the meantime, she uses solar panels as a consciousness-raising tool.
“How can we utilize reclamation lands?” she said to Mr. Yazzie during a recent visit as they held their young daughters in his living room. “Maybe we can use them for solar panels to generate electricity for Los Angeles, to transform something that’s been devastating for our land and water into something that can generate revenue for your family, for your kids.”
Mr. Yazzie, who lives with his wife, three children and two brothers, said he liked the idea. “Once Peabody takes all the coal out, it’ll be gone,” he said. “Solar would be long-term. Solar and wind, we don’t have a problem with. It’s pretty windy out here.”