by Jihan Gearon – Apr. 29, 2012 06:07 PM
Back in the 1960s and ’70s when many coal-burning power plants in the Southwest were built, coal was one of a limited number of options available for power generation.
That is no longer true. So why are we seeing so many industry and political leaders today behaving as if it were?
Consider the Navajo Generating Station coal plant near Page that sends electricity to Phoenix, Tucson, Nevada and California, but not to much-nearer Navajo communities.
Besides electricity, the plant generates pollution — literally tons. In addition to contaminants like mercury and lead, the smokestacks spew 25,000 tons of nitrogen oxide a year. That, in turn, produces fine-particle pollution that gets deep into people’s lungs and can cause heart attacks, strokes, asthma attacks and lung cancer.
Everyone wants healthier air, and the Environmental Protection Agency is supposed to decide soon on updated pollution controls that the aging Navajo Generating Station needs to install to cut a lot more of its dangerous emissions.
But industry and political leaders are shoving back hard. They’re portraying this as a choice between healthier air or cheap water, or healthier air vs. coal-plant jobs (that’s because gradually transitioning off coal would likely make better financial sense given the costs of cutting coal pollution).
Like many Navajos, coal and other extractive industries were a normal part of life for me as a child. My grandfather was a medicine man who worked in the timber industry. My uncle worked at a coal mine. Growing up on the Navajo Nation, it can be difficult to imagine any other way.
Difficult perhaps, but not impossible.
I work with many young Navajos today, the generation that will be tomorrow’s tribal leaders, and it’s truly striking what a different vision they have for the future.
The Navajo Generating Station began being constructed more than 40 years ago. So today’s younger Navajos ask: What’s possible today and over the next 10 years that wasn’t back when the plant was built? What are the options to generate clean power from the sun on Navajo land? How many jobs would be created? How much income would be generated? Could the coal plant be phased out gradually while cleaner sources are developed? What pollution and health and water savings would there be?
Sadly, we’re not getting anything close to this kind of analysis or forward thinking from leaders.
Instead, the Navajo government and plant owner Salt River Project are focused narrowly on preserving the coal status quo, and they issue one-sided reports that never consider the plant’s pollution or health- or water-use impacts, nor the economic benefits in a transition to other energy options. Central Arizona Project exaggerates price impacts on pumping water, and state legislative leaders take cover behind it all to avoid any difficult leadership.
The U.S. Department of Interior hasn’t provided leadership yet either. The report it commissioned on the Navajo Generating Station by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado didn’t even look at options for transitioning to cleaner energy. Yet, isn’t that exactly what America’s foremost experts in renewable energy should be looking at first?
There are ways out of the “health vs. water vs. jobs” box now that weren’t available before. We don’t have to continue to pit them against one another.
Young people today see this opportunity and want action to seize it, in part because they’re the ones who will live longest with the consequences if we don’t. It’s challenging, not impossible.
Don’t political and industry leaders today owe it to our younger generations to rise to that challenge, instead of running from it?
Jihan Gearon is the executive director of Black Mesa Water Coalition, a non-profit organization working with Navajo and Hopi youths and young adults.