November 3, 2009

Controversy over power versus jobs on Navajo land

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The classic struggle between environmentalists and industrialists is playing out in microcosm on the largest Indian reservation in the country. The Arizona Republic lays out the conflict in a fascinating three-part series that looks at the controversies surrounding coal mining and power plant development on Navajo land.

The EPA wants the tribe to install scrubbers to cut down on pollutants at the massive Navajo Generating Station. Some tribe members, including Joe Shirley Jr., president of the Navajo Nation, say the costs would shut down the plants, and thrust more residents into poverty during a time when tribal unemployment is already over 50 percent.

Shirley says he doesn’t believe coal power is damaging. Nor does he believe in climate change. That stance has put him at odds with members of his own tribe who say Navajo people can’t abdicate environmental stewardship of their land.

“The thing that I find shocking is that, as Navajos, we are taught that there are different monsters in creation that try to destroy us,” says Tony Skrelunas, a Navajo who works for the Grand Canyon Trust and spoke to the Arizona Republic. “I think one of those that is really rising up is climate change.

The controversy has spilled to neighboring Hopi land, where some of the coal is mined. It has divided families, and disrupted the power structure of tribal governments.

How it plays out, however, will affect a much wider citizen base – the residents in the four corner states and beyond who rely on the water stored and conveyed using electricity generated by the tribal plants. And by the residents who breathe the haze that builds over the Grand Canyon and, according to the EPA, makes Navajo coal-burning the nation’s third largest emitter of nitrogen oxides.

 –Carol Smith

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