I first met the young Navajo activist Enei Begaye in 1985, when she was nine years old. She was running up the slope of a canyon rim to greet her father, the renowned artist Shonto Begay, who was then a park ranger at Betatakin National Monument in northern Arizona. Today, Enei is 29, and she is fighting an uphill battle as she travels around the Navajo Nation pitching a visionary new idea, which she and her allies call “The Just Transition.”
As hundreds of jobs vaporized last December with the closure of the Peabody coal strip mine on Black Mesa – the result of the shutdown of the Mohave Power Plant – Navajo and Hopi communities began looking for ways to get back on their feet. Activists like Enei Begaye, who is a water campaigner for the Indigenous Environmental Network, and Vernon Masayesva, the director of the Hopi grassroots Black Mesa Trust, had worked for years to shut down the coal slurry line that transported coal to the Mohave plant, because the groundwater extraction was lowering the water table and depleting sacred springs and community wells. Now, they are celebrating the water’s relief, and turning their attention to the future.
Ironically, in the brave new world of pollution as commodity, the owners of the Mohave Power Plant can now sell “pollution credits” to utilities in other parts of the country that want to add more air pollution to distant skies. At $1,000 for every ton of sulfur dioxide that is not emitted from the shuttered Mohave plant, this could bring in as much as $53 million a year to Southern California Edison and the other owners of the Mohave plant. Begaye wants to capture some of that revenue and re-invest the money in job retraining, community planning, and development of renewable energy alternatives that take advantage of the abundant sun and wind that grace the Four Corners area, where the Hopi and Navajo make their homes.
“That money is basically a windfall,” says Begaye. “So we are asking that funds be distributed to Hopi and Navajo communities around a number of restitution issues. Navajo and Hopi people have subsidized coal and water extraction at risk of their environment and health, all to subsidize California energy users with cheap electricity. Money would be invested to transition off of dirty energy to solar and wind and then supply California with a clean source of energy, which is what California ratepayers are demanding, and Governor Schwarzenegger has mandated.”
The proposal needs the approval of the California Public Utility Commission (CPUC). The Just Transition Coalition, which includes Black Mesa Water Coalition, Black Mesa Trust, To’ Nizhoni Ani (Navajo for “beautiful water speaks”), Grand Canyon Trust, Sierra Club, and Indigenous Environmental Network, has submitted a motion to the CPUC asking it to mandate the redistribution of pollution credit money to the tune of $20 million per year through 2026 (when the Mohave plant would have closed anyway due to loss of rights to Colorado River water).
The coalition is proposing to direct 30 percent to local villages and chapters to invest in solar, wind, and ecotourism, 10 percent for job retraining, 40 percent to invest directly in alternative energy development and production, and 20 percent to tribal governments to help sustain programs cut due to loss of royalty income. (With the mine closure the Hopi Tribe loses $7 million per year and the Navajo Tribe 15 percent of their revenues.)
Activists are also doing presentations and community meetings with both Hopi and Navajo to make sure everyone is aware of the opportunity, to create the strongest possible investment plan. They are getting very strong support – so far five Navajo chapters (local governments) have passed resolutions in support of the plan and many others are considering it.
The coalition is planning to hold a joint tribal investment summit this year to bring grassroots leaders, tribal officials, and economists together for a full day to detail the investment plan. It is also organizing a solar panel installation class at the end of the summer where they will install solar panels on a chapter house or school. Sites being considered include Kayenta, where most of the coal miners live, and Forest Lake, the community closest to the strip mine.
Begaye says there is a lot of interest in securing a locally controlled source of electricity: “Around 70 percent of people in the Black Mesa area do not have electricity, but the power lines go right over them as they burn kerosene lanterns. People just want to be able to read at night and not have to drive 50 miles to get water, and solar powered water pumps installed in homes could also provide running water.”
Begaye is aware that the pollution credit money is not free money. The so-called “sulfur allowances” that will be sold to other utilities essentially allow them to avoid or delay installing expensive pollution-control devices.
“The idea that the open market is the best way to control pollution is controversial,” says Begaye. “It is just kind of moving it around, and we know that low-income communities have more potential to be impacted and polluted. But the system is going to happen without us anyway, so that money should not go to Southern California Edison’s shareholders for being out of compliance. That money should go to people who have been suffering for 30 years and help with the transition – and it is a benefit to California ratepayers. This route has never been done before. It would be precedent-setting.”
In late March, the CPUC ordered that any income SCE earned from the sale of pollution credits based on the Mohave plant closing be retained in a separate account, pending a decision on the Just Transition coalition’s proposal. The administrative law judge specifically bars SCE from spending any pollution credit money from the Mohave plant closing until that proposal is disposed of one way or another.
Even if scrubbers were to be installed on the Mohave plant, there remains the problem of coal transportation across hundreds of miles of canyon country. Both the Hopi and Navajo Tribes passed resolutions demanding that Peabody end its use of the N-Aquifer, which it was only forced to do when the power plant closed.
In March, a report by the Natural Resources Defense Council on water mining of the N-Aquifer recommended that the Interior Department and the EPA manage the N-aquifer for long-term drinking water use by the Hopi and Navajo, with full credence given to tribal law and preferences.
Peabody now wants to tap the C-Aquifer between Flagstaff and Winslow by installing a pumping field near the Navajo community of Leupp. Huge obstacles, such as intense local opposition, remain before another water source can be secured.
As the tribes negotiate desperately with Peabody to try to solve the water problem and reopen the mine, Begaye says, “We are emphasizing that this is not a sustainable employment source. What we have is a real plan for sustainable jobs and an economy based on clean renewable energy.”
Christopher “Toby” McLeod directs Earth Island’s Sacred Land Film Project. He has worked with Hopi and Navajo activists since 1978, producing the award-winning documentaries The Four Corners: A National Sacrifice Area? (1983) and In the Light of Reverence (2001).
For $15 you can get four issues of the magazine, a 50 percent savings off the newsstand rate.