Tribes should look beyond coal energy
by Robert Tohe and Tony Skrelunas
Oct. 17, 2009 12:00 AM
We agree with Hopi and Navajo concerns over economic development and job creation and their right to speak out. We also stand united in encouraging tribal leaders to embrace prosperity and health in the 21st century with clean, renewable energy. Considering that our fossil-fuel-based economy will eventually disappear, we believe it is time to look ahead.
For too many years, Southwestern tribes have borne the loss of groundwater and the health impacts and destruction of our homelands from coal, while outside interests profited greatly. At the invitation of tribal communities, conservation groups have joined to help create a better path.
Burning coal is a key contributor to climate change, but it also generates many other toxins. The Mohave Generating Station was in violation of federal clean-air standards, thereby impacting our health and the entire Southwest. Although they had reached an agreement on pollution controls, the owners chose to close the plant in 2005 because of a failure to reach an agreement with Navajo and Hopi governments on coal royalties and the protection of tribal water supplies.
Two other coal plants built long ago on Navajo land are also in violation. Their toxins drift beyond reservation and state borders. Owners of these plants, who do not include tribes, need to reduce their pollution or, better yet, invest in local clean, renewable-energy projects to start transitioning to a more sustainable and healthy economy.
Meanwhile, most coal plants proposed across the country are becoming too risky and costly to build. The planned Desert Rock plant on Navajo land still has no customers, and the permit has been sent back for more environmental review at the request of the Environmental Protection Agency, tribal members and nearby residents.
When Hopi and Navajo people were forced to leave Black Mesa by mining interests, so went their "prosperity." While the mesa's coal provides cheap electricity for Western states, 40 years later, thousands of tribal homes near the mines, power plants and transmission lines are still without electricity and running water. Unemployment chronically hovers above 40 percent. This exploitation by outside interests has done little to alleviate chronic poverty.
But there is hope for the future.
Partnering with the Grand Canyon Trust, the Navajo community of Shonto, located near Black Mesa, is developing solar energy to supply the area with jobs and affordable electricity. They seek to end their coal dependence while carving their own future through community-based programs.
A report soon to be released by Natural Capitalism Solutions shows how renewable-energy development deployed with aggressive energy-efficiency measures provides far more sustainable jobs, along with overall economic benefits, than traditional sources such as coal.
"We were quite amazed," said report author Paul Sheldon, a senior economist of NCS. "In some cases, the models show 10 times the number of jobs created from certain solar technologies versus coal-based generation."
In addition, the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project estimates that every $1 million spent on energy efficiency in Colorado provides a net gain of 17 jobs and $670,000 in wages and compensation.
Before the Mohave plant closed, our groups began supporting Hopi and Navajo leaders in campaigning for a clean-energy future. That story will be told next month in the PBS documentary "Power Paths": http:// powerpaths.semkhor .com
In the film, supporter Winona LaDuke says: "We need to create a way of life where a community is not forced to cannibalize their mother in order to live. . . . We have no absence of resources or technology to do the right thing. What we have is the absence of political will."
Former Hopi Chairman Vernon Masayesva says, "We have the technology, the sun, the land and the power corridor. It should be a piece of cake."
We agree. Together, we can reduce greenhouse gases, toxic pollution and stop the exploitation of the tribes while we rekindle our economy and create more jobs. This is our pledge for a more sustainable future for all.
Robert Tohe is environmental-justice organizer for the Sierra Club Flagstaff. Tony Skrelunas is Native American program director for the Grand Canyon Trust. Both are Navajos.