Questions about Navajo Generating Station’s future lead to more protests

Protesters hold signs and express disdain for the coal industry
Jessica Keetso, who grew up in the Navajo Nation, said it does not make sense to her to be running a coal-fired power plant in a state with about “120 days of 100 percent sunlight,” which could provide solar power. (Photo by Alexis Egeland/Cronkite News)

UPDATE: On Friday, September 21, investors that had expressed interest in taking over the west’s largest coal fired power plant, the Navajo Generating Station, have ended their efforts to acquire it, according to the Fronteras Desk’s Laurel Morales. New York-based Avenue Capital and Chicago-based Middle River Power, showed initial interest, but ultimately said they could not overcome the challenges. The Navajo and Hopi Tribes rely heavily on coal revenue. Navajo Speaker Lorenzo Bates say the tribe plans to pursue other viable buyers. But the plant’s current operator says it isn’t actively working with anyone else.

Nadine Narindrankura of Tó Nizhóni Ání, released a statement that said “the opportunity has presented itself once more to prepare for a successful transition, away from coal. The future is in renewables, not in a dead coal market.”

— Laurel Morales, The Fronteras Desk, KJZZ, September 21, 2018

NEW YORK – A group of Navajo environmentalists took their fight against the Navajo Generating Station (NGS) to Manhattan earlier this week, where they protested outside the offices of an investment firm that might save the coal-fired plant.

Bundled in boots, coats and layers, the group rallied outside Avenue Capital Group for several hours, standing without umbrellas in a cold New York rain and chanting, “Coal is dead,” and “Avenue Capital, we want renewable.”

The group of 18 targeted Avenue because it has expressed interest in buying the plant, which is slated to close at the end of 2019. Keeping the plant open could save hundreds of jobs at the plant and the nearby Kayenta mine that keeps it fueled with coal.

But the protesters say extended operation of NGS will continue to poison the Navajo Reservation while thwarting any chance to shift to clean energy.

The future of the plant has been up in the air, leading to protests both to keep the plant open and to close it. Many of the people who work at the plant are also part of the Navajo Nation and are worried about the future of their jobs.

Ahxeenibaa Ashley, 2, who was at the protest with her parents, Nadine Narindrankura and Nicholas Ashley, took a turn leading chants from the group of protesters outside the offices of Avenue Capital Group. (Photo by Alexis Egeland/Cronkite News)

“We’re at a very critical period right now where we can continue developing fossil fuels on the Navajo Nation or we can do something completely different and more sustainable,” said Nadine Narindrankura, who had her 2-year-old daughter, Ahxeenibaa Ashley, strapped to her chest.

A spokesman for Avenue Capital said Monday that the company had “made no decision regarding the NGS project and therefore do not have a comment” on the protest.

The 1970s-era NGS near Page was built to provide power for the Central Arizona Project, which pumps water from the Colorado River to Phoenix and south-central Arizona, among other customers.

But its days were numbered when CAP announced last year that it would no longer buy power from the plant, as falling natural gas prices had made electricity from those plants cheaper. Salt River Project, the majority owner of NGS, said it would close the plant at the end of 2019.

– Cronkite News video by Ian Solomon

Nicole Horseherder and other environmentalists say it’s time to move away from NGS, which is routinely listed as one of the nation’s most-polluting power plants, and shift to sustainable energy.

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“We want our people to have the opportunity to own and operate their own energy,” Horseherder said. “We need the revenues for it to revive the nation’s economy and bring some much-needed revenue to the Navajo Nation.”

Protesters cited both solar and wind power as viable alternatives to coal, with most pointing to solar energy as the best choice for the sprawling reservation, the nation’s largest at nearly 27,500 square miles.

“We have a state where we have almost, I think it was 120 days of 100 percent sunlight,” said Jessica Keetso, who grew up on the reservation. “I think – no, I know – solar is the way to go.”

Prospects for the plant began to look up this summer, when the Trump administration considered a plan to support nuclear and coal-fired plants by requiring electrical grid operators to buy a certain amount of power from those plants.

Navajo protesters were in New York to draw attention to their fight against continued operation of the Navajo Generating Station, which they said is too polluting. (Photo by Alexis Egeland/Cronkite News)

Navajo Nation officials cautiously welcomed that announcement, citing the jobs that are on the line in an area of high unemployment if the plant closes. Census Bureau figures from 2016 said that of the 127,000 Navajo of working age, more than half are not even considered part of the workforce and of those who are, 20 percent were unemployed.

Calls seeking comment from the tribe were not immediately returned.

But Horseherder said saving the plant is not the best way to save jobs. If an investor tries to revive the NGS, she said, they “might make a profit, but in the long run, we’re going to be in this exact same place again.”

Narindrankura said that moving from coal to solar energy would ultimately improve the quality of life for everyone on the reservation.

Traffic goes past as Navajo protesters attempt to hang a banner outside the Park Avenue offices of Avenue Capital Group, which has expressed an interest in buying the Navajo Generating Station. (Photo by Alexis Egeland/Cronkite News)

“As of right now, only a select few are employed by the mine and by the Navajo Generating Station, and their quality of life and their health deteriorates fast,” she said.

Nicholas Ashley, Ahxeenibaa’s father, said he came to protest “mainly because of my daughter.”

“The future that she’s going to inherit is a future that’s not too exciting,” he said, “and it’s pretty scary.”

But he said fossil fuels affect more than his daughter or the reservation.

“Everybody needs to wake up – it’s not just indigenous people,” Ashley said. “This is for everybody, it’s not just us.”

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a new multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.