L.A.’s Dirty Coal Addiction Is Killing The Navajo


When one thinks of coal country, Los Angeles is probably not what immediately comes to mind. Appalachia and the Powder River Basin, sure, but not this sun-drenched stretch of coastline. Not highbrow Brentwood or the mansion-lined streets of Beverly Hills. Not star-studded Hollywood or the surf breaks of Venice. Not here, in the heart of it all.

In part this an accurate assessment. California as a whole has no active coal mines and only a handful of small coal-fired power plants. L.A.’s infamous smog isn’t generated from dirty coal plants nearby, nor is the pollution that hugs up against the San Gabriel Mountains the result of burning coal. Nonetheless, a large percentage of the power Angelenos depend on to run their air conditioners and light their buildings comes from coal plants — plants that spew their filth hundreds of miles away, across state lines in Indian country. This filth is all out of sight and out of mind for most who call L.A. home.

While California is often cited as one of the most energy efficient states in the country, coal still plays a large role in producing energy for the state. When in-state generation, (some 461 MW) is added to out-of-state coal-based electricity (approximately 3,500 MW) California ranks 28th in the United States in coal-fired power generation. Nearly all of this electricity generated by coal ends up in Southern California.

L.A. is no small energy market. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP), which derives nearly 40 percent of its power from coal, boasts of a customer base of over 1.37 million households. Two massive generating stations serve LADWP’s needs, the Navajo Generating Station and Intermountain Power Station, in Arizona and Utah respectively.  And L.A. may soon be to blame for tarnishing Utah’s majestic Bryce Canyon.

Alton Coal, which owns Utah’s Coal Hollow strip mine, supplies coal to the Intermountain Power Plant and is set to expand their mine, with Bureau of Land Managment’s approval, onto 3,500 acres of public land just 10 miles from Bryce Canyon National Park. Last summer the L.A. City Council was to pass a resolution to urge the Department of Interior to withdraw Coal Hollow from coal leasing permanently, but delayed their vote. Currently the mine is moving forward with its coal ready to electrify homes in California.

Environmentalists and others have long criticized the Navajo Generating Station for polluting communities near the plant, which are largely made up of people from the Navajo Nation. Annually, the plant spews more than 19 million tons of carbon dioxide and according to the Clean Air Task Force, a nonprofit research organization, the plant has been responsible for an average of 16 deaths per year due to its fine particle pollution. This dust-size pollution is made of up a complex mixture of soot, heavy metals, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxides. It is a nasty mix of toxins that causes severe asthma and even cancer.

Navajo Nation is massive, encompassing all of northeastern Arizona, a southeastern chunk of Utah as well as northwestern New Mexico. It’s the largest reservation in the United States and has a population of 300,000 people. Coal mining operations and power plants on these lands, which includes an area shared with the Hopi, accounts for 1,500 jobs, a total of one-third of the tribe’s annual operating budget.

Since 2005 two coal mines on the reservation have been shut down, including the one that fed the Black Mesa power station, which halted operations when the nearby Mojave Generating Station ceased. Such strides have given hope to many fighting coal in these all-but-forgotten areas.

“It’s a new day for the Navajo people,” says Lori Goodman, an official with Diné Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment (Diné CARE), a group founded over 20 years ago. “We can’t be trashing the land anymore.”

Late last year, 16 people were arrested in Tempe, Arizona for protesting outside the offices of the Salt River Project (SRP) the managing partner of the Navajo plant. The protest was one of several that took place across the state targeting the American Legislative Exchange Council. ALEC is a nonprofit made up of corporations and state politicians around the country who vote in private on “model bills” that benefit the very corporations that support the organization. SRP is a member of ALEC and also holds a seat on its corporate board.

“My community is heavily impacted by Salt River Project’s coal and water extraction activities. SRP has extensive ties to Peabody Energy’s massive mining operations and the Navajo Generating Station,” says Louise Benally of nearby Black Mesa. “Coal mining has destroyed thousands of archeological sites and our only water source has been seriously compromised. Their operations are causing widespread respiratory problems, lung diseases, and other health impacts on humans, the environment, and all living things.”

Native American activist Ofelia Rivas, of the O’odham people, was also on hand to criticize SRP, claiming the company continues to divert water from O’odham lands for profit, devastating the agricultural way of life of the O’odham. LADWP owns a 22 percent stake in SRP’s Navajo coal-fired power plant.

This is not to say that all in L.A., including Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, are okay with LADWP’s investment in coal, as least rhetorically. The agency’s 2010 Integrated Resource Plan, a 20 year strategic vision, cited a need for major investments in renewable energies, as well as a call for ending purchases of power from both the Intermountain Power Station and the Navajo plant. It was a bold proclamation, but one that is likely not going to happen in the proposed 20-year timeframe. In fact, by December 2010 the plan’s renewable energy goals were in peril with the objectives set forth in the plan already requiring revision.

California, compared to most states, has taken important measures toward weaning the state off dirty fossil fuels. One such initiative, SB 1368, prohibits public utilities from building new coal plants or entering into new long-term arrangements with plants that emit more than 1,100 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour. Because no commercially available technology can meet that standard, SB 1368 has stopped new coal plants both inside and outside the state.

These are all good measures, but they don’t go far enough in cracking down on SRP’s activities in Arizona, contend activists intent on shutting the Navajo plant down. While the plant installed scrubbers in the 1990s to reduce sulfur dioxide, new controls are also needed to control nitrogen oxide, soot, and mercury.  In November 2012 the EPA set new emission controls at three plants that operate in eastern Arizona: Apache Generating Station, Cholla Power Plant and Coronado Generating Station. The EPA stated that their decision was aimed at improving air quality, and visibility, throughout much of Arizona and at 18 national parks and wilderness areas in the region.

These sorts of tussles did not stop the international development company Sithe Global Power from proposing the so-called Desert Rock power station on Navajo land. The plant would have been the third power plant within a 15-mile vicinity of two other plants. Diné CARE, among other groups, opposed the plant on the grounds that it would have disproportionately impacted the Navajo people. Diné CARE in 2006 brought substantial attention to the plant by blockading the road that lead to the proposed site. Protesters were arrested, but the fight continued, with the Sierra Club announcing in March 2011 that Sithe Global had finally abandoned its plans for the plant.

Southern California Edison also announced in 2010 that the company was going to divest its 48-percent stake in New Mexico’s Four Corners power station by 2016. While this was a significant victory for those seeking to end coal operations on Navajo land, the nearby Reid Gardner power plant in Arizona has caused more than a few headaches.

Like the Navajo power plant, the majority of Reid Gardner’s electrical output ends up in California, while the immediate environmental and health impacts occur locally. In a report published by Earthjustice and Sierra Club in 2011, Reid Gardner was cited as having high levels of chromium seeping into local groundwater supplies. Chromium, made infamous by Erin Brockovich’s fight with Pacific Gas & Electric, is nasty stuff for humans when it makes its way into drinking water.

“My neighbors and I feel coal pollution up close. Our children and elders suffer from asthma and other respiratory ailments, and that makes the issue immediate and personal,” explains William Anderson, chairman of the Moapa Band of Paiutes, a tribe that lives right under Reid Gardner’s smokestacks.

“Our children are losing more than their health because of the power plants; they’re losing their culture, too. We used to hunt ducks and geese on our land–but no longer. The birds land in the coal wastewater ponds. We used to harvest medicinal plants, but not anymore. The plants have been contaminated over the years by the plant’s coal ash dust, soot and other pollutants,” adds Anderson. “Air quality and public-health safeguards should not depend on political winds driven by those who never have to inhale the pollution they authorize.”

The Moapa people Anderson represents and many Navajo agree: Californians, especially those living in L.A., should demand clean energy production that not only creates jobs for native people, but also improves their health by forcing these dirty plants to shutter their doors as soon as possible.

Joshua Frank, Managing Editor of CounterPunch, is the author of Left Out! How Liberals Helped Reelect George W. Bush, and along with Jeffrey St. Clair, the editor of Red State Rebels: Tales of Grassroots Resistance in the Heartland, and of Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. Hopeless is now available in Kindle format. He can be reached at brickburner@gmail.com.

JOSHUA FRANK is managing editor of CounterPunch. His latest book, edited with Jeffrey St. Clair is  Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion. He can be reached at brickburner@gmail.com. You can follow him on Twitter @brickburner

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