Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Navajo and Hopi tribes scramble to find new revenue after closure of coal-fired power plant, largest in Western U.S.

Navajo Generating Station employee Alex Tsinnjinnie
at work. (AZ Republic photo by Mark Henle)
The Navajo Generating Station, the largest coal-fired power plant in the West, stopped making electricity Monday after 45 years, Ryan Randazzo and Shondlin Silversmith report for The Arizona Republic.

The 2,250-megawatt plant's closure is a deep blow to the economies of Native American tribes. The plant is in Page, Ariz. (pop. 7,247), on Navajo Nation land and most of the employees were Navajo or Hopi. Plant jobs paid much better than most other jobs nearby, and revenue, taxes and royalties from coal made up most of the Hopi budget and a third of the Navajo operating budget, Laurel Morales reports for Arizona State University's Cronkite News. 

Hopi Chairman Timothy Nuvangyaoma estimated that as much as 85 percent of his tribe's general fund budget will be affected by the closure, at least a $12 million revenue loss. Navajo leaders estimated at $30 million to $50 million decline in coal revenues for 2020, Randazzo and Silversmith report. Leaders for both tribes are considering ways to make up the shortfall, including mineral and land development, casinos, renewable energy ventures, and tourism.

The plant had been problematic for years because of the pollution it generated. In 2014, the Environmental Protection Agency struck a deal with the plant's owners to keep it running at two-thirds capacity. Then area utilities voted to close the plant two years ago; they co-own the plant with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. The owners, along with the Navajo and Hopi tribes, tried to keep the plant running, but Arizona's federal Salt River Project, which owns the largest share of the plant, announced a year ago it would close the plant if a buyer could not be found. CEO Mike Hummel said the station was closing because it's cheaper to produce electricity from natural gas and renewable energy sources and easier to comply with air-quality regulations, Randazzo and Shondlin report.

Before operations began winding down two years ago, the plant employed 750 people, nearly all Native Americans. Most of the miners have been laid off, though some will work on reclaiming the land. Most plant workers have transferred to new Salt River Project jobs, many in Phoenix—a four-hour drive away. Some plant workers turned down the SRP jobs because they didn't want to leave their communities, Morales reports.

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