Navajo Workers At Coal-Fired Power Plant Brace For Its Closing

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The Navajo Generating Station located on the Navajo Indian Reservation, near Page, Ariz.

When Marlene Fowler wakes up in the northern Arizona town of Kaibeto, she can see a yellow-green haze on the horizon. But Fowler's not worried about the pollution. It's her husband's job at the Navajo Generating Station that has her on edge.

"Even though they say the pollution is all this and that, it's been there years," she says.

The Navajo Generating Station is the largest coal-fired power plant in the Western United States, and it's slated to shut down in 2019. While environmentalists are celebrating, hundreds of Navajo people like Fowler who rely on jobs there are devastated.

Fowler works as a cook at a senior center, but she says her family relies on the paycheck her husband earns as a part-time mechanic for the power plant. Fowler says without the plant work, he'll have to travel to various odd jobs.

"It's going to cost a lot of gas and mileage on the vehicles. They have to pay their motels and meals and lodging and stuff," she says.

Similarly, Lorinda Bennett says her family will be impacted by the closing.

"I have a daughter that's working there and two son-in-laws working there. They're close by," she says. "We see them almost every day."

Bennett is afraid the plant shutdown will take her children and grandchildren far from her.

"Our kids are going to move away and our grandkids. That's what they're planning on. They're already looking for another job," she says.

The Navajo Nation has relied on the coal industry for the last four decades. The energy companies have provided hundreds of families with some of the best-paying jobs on the reservation. The revenue, taxes and royalties all make up about a third of the tribe's operating budget.

The Salt River Project, the plant operator, says natural gas is much cheaper and makes more economic sense. A plant closure means the coal mine that feeds the plant would also likely shut down. Together, the Navajo Generating Station and the mine that feeds the plant employ about 800 people.

"Their benefit has been at our expense — expense meaning the water, the land, the health of the people," says Percy Deal, who lives near that coal mine.

Thousands of tons of nitrogen oxide the plant spews into the atmosphere have caused serious health problems. Deal says the plant shutdown is an opportunity to fix the mistakes of the past and open the door to a cleaner future. Green energy — like wind power — would use less water and wouldn't pollute or harm the environment, he says.

To that end there's a plan to bring together four colleges from the region to build a higher education center near the Navajo Generating Station. That's what Coconino County Supervisor Lena Fowler is working on to give power plant employees a reason to stay.

"These are the homeowners. These are the people that come and shop," she says.

Fowler started work on an economic impact plan when she thought she had 25 years until the plant's closure. Now, she says, the tribe has just three years to ask "the big scary questions."

"How do we help ourselves? How do we help our children? How do we help our neighbors? How do we as a community come together to help each other to keep our population whole and families whole?" she says.

Fowler hopes the answers to those questions are able to do more than simply replace the jobs lost at the power plant.

The Navajo Nation hopes President Trump will help keep the plant open through 2044.

"This dilemma provides an opportunity for the Trump administration to live up to its promise to the American people that it will stand behind the coal industry," Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye said in a statement. "Many people depend on this industry. It is a matter of national security."

Laurel Morales is a reporter with NPR member station KJZZ in Flagstaff, Ariz.

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