Power plant shutdown fuels fight between tribes, utility
By John Ritter, USA TODAY


BLACK MESA, Ariz. — On the last day of 2005, the West's dirtiest power plant shut down, forcing the coal mine that supplied it to close. That was keenly felt by the nation's most populous Indian tribe, which lost jobs and millions of dollars in royalties from the world's largest coal company.

Those elements now frame a sticky debate in Indian country about one of the USA's thorniest policy issues: reliance on traditional energy sources such as oil, gas and coal, vs. developing renewable alternatives such as wind and solar power.

A key to the debate is an arcane regulatory mechanism called pollution credits. Polluters, such as coal-fired power plants, buy and sell credits in a commodities-style market designed to help clean up the nation's smokestacks. A plant that closes and stops polluting earns credits, based on a federal formula, for its owners.

In this dispute, an outside coalition of environmental groups for the first time is demanding tens of millions of dollars worth of the plant owner's credits as restitution for decades of pollution and, the groups say, undervalued coal royalties.

The strategy reflects the growing interest across the country in claiming credits as compensation.

"Environmental groups are saying, 'These are really valuable. Why don't we allocate them beyond the plants?' " says Thaddeus Huetteman, vice chairman of Power & Energy Analytic Resources in Atlanta, a trading and consulting firm.

Tribal leaders are in talks aimed at reopening the mine and the Mohave Generating Station in Laughlin, Nev. But the demand by the grass-roots coalition for the plant's credits could sabotage those efforts and upend a decades-old status quo on the sprawling Navajo and Hopi reservations.

Meanwhile, miners who lost the highest-paying reservation jobs are suffering. "This was my dream ever since I was small, to live on the reservation, live on my homeland where my grandparents set a site for me," says K.J. Clitso, who's trying to support his wife, six children and a $400-a-month mortgage on $240 a week in unemployment. "I'm settled. I'd hate to leave."

The coalition says credits that the power plant owners will amass by keeping their facility closed could finance solar and wind energy development and create jobs.

In January, the Indian groups Black Mesa Trust, Indigenous Environmental Network and other coalition members took their proposal to the California Public Utilities Commission, which regulates the 1,585-megawatt power plant. Southern California Edison is the majority owner of the plant.

"The (coal) mine's negative impacts are now far greater than the positive, but the tribe is doing everything it can to keep it open," says Nicole Horseherder, co-director of the coalition group To' Nizhoni Ani — Navajo for "beautiful water speaks."

"That's not self-determination. That's continuing this unhealthy relationship where we're totally dependent."

The credits are crucial to the coalition's proposal. If the credits are put on the market, another plant probably would buy them to offset its own pollution and stay within federal limits. For every ton of sulfur dioxide that isn't released into the air, a plant gets one credit worth $1,000. Mohave belched 53,000 tons of sulfur dioxide a year, or about $53 million worth of credits in the current market.

The coalition, backed with consulting help from the Sierra Club and the Grand Canyon Trust, argues that Mohave has fouled Western skies since 1971, and it's pay-back time. With Mohave's credits, the coalition envisions a "just transition" to a clean-energy economy.

"I'm personally sympathetic to the plight of these Indians," says Michael Peevey, the California PUC president. "But should California rate-payers be paying for the investments and job training they want? You could argue either side."

An administrative law judge will hear the case before the PUC makes a decision. That could take months, Peevey says.

Southern California Edison, Mohave's main owner, says in a PUC filing that some "ill-defined group" of Hopis and Navajos has no legal claim to a "windfall" of credits.

Black Mesa mine's operator, Peabody Western Coal Co., labels the coalition a "vocal minority." The Navajo government opposes the coalition plan. The Hopi government's priority is to reopen the mine but, in case it doesn't, wants the PUC to account for Mohave's credits.

In pollution-trading markets, sulfur dioxide credits hit a high of $1,630 a ton in late December before falling to around $1,000 a ton today. In 2003, they were trading at $220.

As prices rose, owners of some coal-fired power plants found it economical to clean up polluting plants because they could pay for it by selling newly earned credits.

Tribes face hardships

Peabody has no way to transport Black Mesa coal other than a 273-mile slurry line from the mine to Mohave. Navajos who held most of the 200 mine and slurry positions have few job options. Peabody estimates Black Mesa's annual economic benefit to the tribes at $90 million in royalties, wages, benefits, taxes, fees and supplier payments.

Clitso made nearly $60,000 as a control room operator on the slurry line but now must make cutbacks in his own life. A new GMC pickup had to go back to the dealer. Leased solar panels that supplied electricity at $95 a month were turned off. Satellite TV became an unaffordable luxury. Contributions to the kids' college fund were put on hold. With health insurance terminated, the family relies on a free clinic. They take fewer trips to town.

Clitso, 39, had been at the mine five years since moving from Salt Lake City, where he worked in a slaughterhouse. Like many Indians living in remote areas, the Clitsos have no access to plumbing, and they heat and cook with wood and coal. His 50 acres is 10 miles of bumpy dirt road from the nearest pavement.

"I thought I had a good job going," Clitso says. "If I move to another job, and that means losing my homeland, everything will be turned around."

Strong opinions on both sides

Andy Blackwater, 64, a diesel mechanic at Black Mesa, wasn't ready to retire when he found himself out of a job on New Year's Day with no severance after 32 years. He hopes to be rehired if the mine reopens but realizes that's a long shot. For years, Blackwater says, tribal officials knew the mine might close but did nothing. "The tribe should have its own economy and not depend on Peabody," he says.

The coalition is lobbying tribal councils and far-flung chapters, but critics point out that it offers little more than a proposal on paper. "Who's going to buy this power? How will they get it to market? There're very few transmission lines out there," says Harris Sherman, a lawyer for the Hopis.

Both tribes' governments have federally funded projects to measure wind and solar energy potential on the reservations. But for now, they're intent on getting Black Mesa and Mohave running again.

Whether that happens is tied up with why they closed in the first place. A lawsuit forced Edison to agree in 1998 either to install equipment to clean up sulfur dioxide emissions or shut Mohave down by the end of 2005.

The deadline passed with no cleanup, closing the plant and mine. The tribes, Edison and Peabody hope to resume operations as before while cleanup equipment is installed, Sherman says. That could take three years. The lawsuit's plaintiffs, people living around Mohave who complained of respiratory illnesses from the plant's pollution, would have to agree.

For now, miners remain idle. Which is OK with sheepherders such as Dan Herder, 53, who have to haul water to their livestock because springs and ponds are dry. Herder isn't eager for the mine to reopen.

"We've seen a lot of changes in the land, especially in the last 20 years," he says. "Nature's out of balance, is how we look at it. We were here before the mine."


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Water key to dispute over economic future
By John Ritter, USA TODAY

BLACK MESA, Ariz. — A new spin on an old topic — the ability of Native Americans to create self-sufficient economies — is resonating across the high desert and table-top mesas of ancient Navajo and Hopi lands.

A grass-roots coalition is promoting ideas about economic development on reservations where more than half the adults are unemployed. The coalition urges not reopening a coal mine that provided a few high-paying jobs but creating a bigger job base in wind and solar energy.

At the heart of the dispute is water, the arid region's scarcest resource. Water's role is particularly contentious because, to Hopis and Navajos, it's more than a necessity. It's sacred — Earth's first living spirit.

Coal from Black Mesa mine — 5 million tons a year — was piped 273 miles to a Nevada power plant in a slurry line with 1.3 billion gallons of Indians' drinking water. Years of pumping groundwater for the slurry depleted an aquifer that is the reservations' sole supply, the coalition says.

Beth Sutton, a spokeswoman for mine owner Peabody Western Coal, says many studies have found no harm to the aquifer. The barren springs and creeks that Navajo sheepherders and farmers complain about are due to a prolonged drought, not pumping, she says. A Natural Resources Defense Council study, however, found damage to the aquifer.

If the mine reopens, pumping would resume, at least temporarily. Both the Hopi tribe and the Navajo Council, under pressure from their people, have voted to bar more pumping from the aquifer.

Peabody and the power plant owners propose using a larger aquifer that is already being used to provide water to three other power plants, the cities of Flagstaff and Winslow and hundreds of small communities.

Federal agencies including the Office of Surface Mining, EPA and the Bureau of Land Management, are studying whether a pipeline from the second aquifer would harm it, the environment or endangered species. A decision isn't expected before next year. Without a water deal, the power plant owners can't commit to an estimated $1.2 billion investment to clean up pollution and build a new slurry line. And miners can't go back to work.

Jobs are the priority on both sides. On the reservations, 44% of Navajos and 42% of Hopis live below the federal poverty line, according to the 2000 Census. A quarter of Navajo families had incomes under $10,000, and 46% of Navajo adults had no high school diploma, the Census found.

No polls have measured public opinion among the 170,000 Navajos and 7,000 Hopis on the reservations. But to some, losing the mine's revenue and payroll would be devastating. "A lot of people want to continue with the mine," Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley says. "And I want to continue with it, because of employment, because of revenues."

Others say the mine's economic impact is overstated. "It troubles me that we have a leader who would put coal ahead of people's livelihoods, which is water," says Amos Johnson, a tribal council delegate. He would keep Black Mesa closed unless coal can be transported without using water.

The council could be decisive, because on reservations today, power has shifted from traditionally dominant tribal presidents to the tribes' legislative bodies, says Manley Begay, a Navajo and director of the University of Arizona's Native Nations Institute. "Tribal councils have authority now. It's not just the president anymore," he says.

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Both articles originally found in USA Today March 14, 2006



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