When The New York Times recently ran an article about Black Mesa and electricity generated from coal mined on the Navajo reservation, it described the Navajo Generating Station as one “of the largest air polluters in the United States.” It also headlined the article “Navajos Hope to Shift from Coal to Wind and Sun.” A casual reader might be excused for thinking the Navajo had something to do with the operation of the Navajo generating station and were about to switch over to solar and wind power.
In fact the actual owners of the Navajo Generating Station are six giant utilities of Phoenix, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles—three cities known as the Black Mesa Triangle. The coal is mined on Black Mesa, burned in three power plants around the reservation, and the electricity used to light neon signs in Las Vegas, keep air conditioners humming in Los Angeles, and pump water from the Colorado River up over three mountain ranges into Phoenix. (The largest owners of the power plant are the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, Nevada Power, the Salt River Project, and U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Central Arizona Project.) The single largest user of the electricity is the Bureau of Reclamation’s Central Arizona Project that reroutes water from the Colorado River up over three mountain ranges down into the desert cities of Phoenix and Tucson. The energy to lift the water comes from firing Black Mesa coal. It is here that the Navajo enter the picture. Without below-market-rate coal, the project would not have been viable. Before Boston’s Big Dig, the Central Arizona Project was the most expensive civil engineering project in American history.
When coal mining began forty years ago, the promise was that the cities would get cheap electricity and the Navajos would become rich. The second part proved ephemeral. The Navajo have no control over the generating stations, electricity rates, or the price they get for their coal. The Navajo tribal council spent the last ten years in a legal battle trying to raise the royalty rate that Peabody Coal (now Peabody Energy Inc., the world’s largest coal company) paid them to the same level that the government sets for coal mining leases on public lands. They lost. In addition, they have epidemic levels of asthma, bronchitis, heart disease, and other ailments—much of it caused by coal dust in the air and the heavy metals released when coal is burned. (The generating plants were built without scrubbers. The Mohave Power Station in southern Nevada closed in 2005 because it was deemed too expensive to retrofit. It did, however, live out its design life of 35 years as a prototype plant run from coal slurry and proved a profitable model to sell to China and Russia.)
So the Navajo have begun to develop an alternative energy policy that would focus on other energy systems than coal leasing. Black Mesa is high desert country. Wind farms and solar alternatives seem viable possibilities in a region where there is almost three hundred days of sun and a lot of wind.
“Coal No! Solar Yes!” read a recent Las Vegas billboard, a brief but hopeful glimpse into energy thinking in a city that seems impermeable to conservation ideas. At the intersection of Flamingo Road and the Las Vegas Strip, the towering electrical transmission towers are clustered like ships’ masts in a crowded harbor. This particular junction is brighter than Broadway, at night its lights visible from space. For there to be real “choice” in wind and solar, the citizens of Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Los Angeles need to be able to answer this question: Do you know where your electricity comes from?
Judith Nies is a nonfiction author of three books and a recent Black Mountain Institute/Kluge Scholar at the Library of Congress and University Nevada Las Vegas researching energy infrastructure on Black Mesa and Hopi-Navajo lands. Her article “The Black Mesa Syndrome: Indian Lands, Black Gold” appeared in the Summer 1998 issue of Orion.
The environmental disaster for the first time raised the question of why coal-burning power plants are allowed to dump the fly ash wasteâ€”the fine, dust-like particles emitted when coal is burned to create powerâ€”into vast open pits. The ash, doused with water and left in these containment ponds for years, contains toxic elements like arsenic, mercury, and lead. But for decades, the disposal of the waste was left unregulated. Power plants produce more than 130 million tons of the ash each year, and while 43 percent of it gets recycled into products like cement and wallboard, much of the rest remains on site at coal-fired power plants around the country.