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Navajo People Power vs. Corporate Coal Power

By: 
Jeff Conant
Date Published: 
June 16, 2007
    “I am a rancher. I have lived off of cattle, off of sheepherding. Now the land is being eaten away day by day, by oil fences, coal mining, new power plants. My cattle have nothing to eat, the water is polluted, the air is dirty, Life itself has sunken. The very basis of economic development for my family has diminished far below poverty level to where I can barely survive. This is a direct result of coal-fired power plants.”

    —Henry Dixon, Navajo rancher

On April 14 a crowd of about 60 people gathered outside a ramshackle hut on a dusty hillock on the Navajo Reservation to celebrate the fact that this land – this particular land, a dry sagebrush desert where a handful of Navajo families have made a living for centuries raising sheep – was safe for perhaps a few more months from the predatory plans of a Houston-based energy firm that hopes to build a massive coal-fired power plant here.

The gathering consisted of Navajo people from nearby and from as far away as Black Mesa, Arizona, as well as non-Navajos representing groups like the Sierra Club and New Mexico Conservation Voters, and a few individual supporters and independent journalists. In the state capitol at Santa Fe, legislators had just rejected a bill that would have given the company, Sithe Global Power, an $85 million tax break to build the plant. The people behind victory were a small handful of Navajo activists who are now known nationwide as the Dooda Desert Rock Resisters. (Dooda means “no” in Diné, the local language.)

Desert Rock is not a place on any map, and the small band of resisters hopes to ensure that it never will be. Desert Rock is the name of the proposed power plant worth $2.5 billion that George Hardeen, spokesman for the office of Navajo President Joe Shirley calls “the largest project in all of Native America”.

Hardeen, who has spent the last several months moving from meeting to meeting to raise funds and political support for Desert Rock, says the project “will kick start the Navajo Nation economy. Having a project of this size will bring other jobs. This is not just a cornerstone of the Navajo nation’s goals – it’s a huge cornerstone. There’s really nothing else that can compare to this.”

But the Dooda Desert Rock resisters– Elouise Brown, Hank and Henry Dixon, David Nez, Alice Gilmore, and their families – have something to compare it to. Within sight of the Dooda Desert Rock vigil, an impromptu encampment established near where the company hopes to build, two other massive generating stations billow clouds of smoke and ash into the desert sky. The Four Corners Power Plant and the San Juan Generating Station – between them generating 3840 megawatts of electricity and dumping 257 million pounds of sulfur dioxide, 222 million pounds of nitrogen oxides, 14 million pounds of soot and 3000 pounds of mercury into the atmosphere each year – have turned the four corners region into what locals call “Cancer Alley Southwest.”

Smog turns the sky a pasty yellow and a brown cloud hovers over the iconic silhouette of Shiprock, a desert landmark in the distance. A full 15% of the population of San Juan County, the northwestern-most county in New Mexico where the Navajo Reservation straddles the corners of Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona, suffers from lung disease. And the Navajo Coal mine, a deep gash in the earth that locals call “the grand canyon of coal,” already contains 70 million tons of coal combustion waste, “making it the biggest dump of mine waste in the country,” according to the Clean Air Task Force, a national non-profit.

This waste, heavily laden with cadmium, selenium, arsenic, and lead – byproducts of coal-burning – leaches into groundwater making it poisonous to people, livestock, and vegetation. A forthcoming report from EPA released to the environmental group Earthjustice indicates that groundwater contaminated with coal ash leads to a cancer risk as high as 1 in 100 – 10,000 times higher than previous EPA estimates.

Armed with the awareness that king coal is destroying their land and killing their people, the Dooda Desert Rock resisters have organized themselves – and are attempting to organize their entire nation – to resist a decision that they feel has been imposed by a tribal council beholden to profit, rather than to the philosophy and lifeways that the Navajo have practiced since time beyond time.

A Story of Resistance

    “Not one more inch is for sale. They can’t have one more inch. This power plant is the last thrust of a dying breed of energy problems that we’re having, and if we can stave this off for a little while longer, perhaps we can do away with it entirely and get our skies clean again. We’re gonna be there fighting this from now on.”
    -- Tom Johnston, local Dooda Desert Rock supporter

The struggle began with a car chase. On December 12 of last year, Elouise Brown, a Navajo woman and US Army vet recently returned from service, came upon a stranger driving on her family’s grazing land. As a consultant to the energy company drilling a test well nearby, the man claimed a right to be there. When Elouise cornered him and told him to leave, he called the company to report trouble. By the next day, Elouise had set up a camp at the site nearest the test well where she could get a cell phone signal, had planted an American Flag in the hardscrabble dirt overlooking the Navajo Coal Mine, and the newest native struggle against resource colonization began.

The original blockade was set up to prevent employees of Sithe Global Power from entering the area. But an injunction against Elouise Brown and the group of resisters, filed in January, has forced them to allow company employees access to the land. After the injunction, and after several tense stand-offs with Navajo Tribal Police – the blockade became a vigil. Over the course of the bitterest months of winter two trailers and a small shack were planted there, with a home-built cast-iron wood stove for warmth and a pair of Coleman cook stoves to feed the permanent residents and the many visitors who began arriving from across the state and as far away as California. Ken Quinn, a renegade engineer from the town of Taos, five hours distant, set up a wind turbine and solar generator to bring light to the vigil and turn it from a barren sheep camp into a symbol of the kind of energy alternatives many Navajo would hope to see.

While a steady group of volunteers – mostly elders and youth – held down the encampment, other strategies developed. Tech-savvy Navajo youth set up a website and blog, updated daily, which became the main source of information about the energy project and the resistance. Elouise Brown, Hank Dixon, David Nez and their grandmothers, grandfathers, children, cousins and other relatives began making regular trips to Santa Fe to lobby the state legislature, hoping to scuttle the $85 million dollar tax credit Sithe had asked for. They also hounded Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley, writing letters, calling, attending meetings, and generally appearing everywhere to question the logic of selling the Navajo earth, water and sky for what Hank Dixon calls “a few cheesy jobs and a pollution problem that will never go away.”

One of the highwater marks of the resistance was a protest mounted at Window Rock, the Navajo Nation capitol, on January 10 – the inauguration day of President Joe Shirley’s second term. Elouise Brown and others traveled to Window Rock hoping to speak with President Shirely and members of the tribal council. Carrying signs and voicing their complaint – and already identified as trouble-makers – they were barred from entering the ceremony.

According to Elouise Brown, “I said we should just try to go in, so we started marching towards the gate. The police started rushing around and closing the gates and putting padlocks on. The closer we got, the more police there were. A helicopter started circling above us, and then the whole thing just got out of hand. So we turned around and we stayed at the gate. We stood there during the whole inauguration. When it was over, most of the council delegates that came out gave us the thumbs up.”

Photos of the Window Rock protest showing tribal police facing off against protestors with signs saying “Respect Mother Earth” went up on the Desert Rock blog and appeared in newspapers across the state, offering the movement’s first strong visual icon.

This protest, and the photos and stories that came out of it, took the resistance from the remote vigil site to the center of the Navajo Nation, revealing a political divide that until that moment, had gone largely unseen.

One of the main points of the resisters is that, if there had been proper consultation and real education about the issue, including alternatives such as wind and solar power, most Navajo would not support more coal development.
David Nez, who lives 20 miles from the site of the proposed plant, is adamant about his people’s sovereign right to defend their land and culture.

“You will hear that the Navajo Nation supports this power plant,” says Nez. “But the grassroots people do not support this. The way I look at it, no Navajo or Native American in their right mind would vote for the mother earth to be blown up like this, or to have mercury leach into the water for future generations. That doesn’t go along with the philosophy of the Diné.”

Nez, who travels to South Dakota every year to participate in the Sun Dance ceremony, has found a calling as one of the voices of the resistance.

“My whole outlook on this is that we as human beings have an obligation. I believe that we are the stewards of this land. That we don’t own the land, but we belong to the land. They say that the ancient peoples guided this planet through the heavens. She takes care of us, and we in turn take care of her with our prayers.”

After the Window Rock protest, the group ensured that at least one person would be at the vigil site at all times, and focused their efforts on Santa Fe to defeat the state tax break.

“We packed the council chambers,” says Elouise Brown. “At one point, the Senator says to the guys from DPA [Diné Power Authority, the Navajo organization behind the project] ‘you say you have all this support, but where are your supporters?’ He asks the supporters to raise their hands, and nobody raises their hands. Then he asks everybody who is opposed to the project to raise their hands, and every hand in the room goes up. When that happened, I knew we had a chance to win this thing.”

A History of Resource Extraction

    “Within a few years, the Navajo Nation will see the result of all its planning and action in increased revenues and jobs. Through the financial independence that will come, our sovereignty will flourish and our dependency will end.”
    -- Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley

    “We call this planet that we all live on Mother Earth, and we should treat her like our Mother Earth. Why are we cutting her open and scarring her? If she is our mother, why are we doing this to her?”
    --Betty Dixon, Navajo sheep herder

One third of the low-sulfur coal in the Western US is under Reservation land, and a good portion of it is here in the four corners region, where, along with uranium, it has long attracted the interest of the energy industry, making Navajo territory a prime site for resource colonization. David Nez, speaking against a hard desert wind during the April 14th victory celebration, pointed out, “We’re lucky they didn’t find silver and gold here back in the last century. If they did, today we would be in Oklahoma, and we would be assimilated just like the Oklahoma tribes.

They didn’t find gold and silver, but they found coal and uranium. Across the reservation in Arizona, the Black Mesa and Kayenta coal mines have operated for decades, shipping coal to the Navajo Generating Station near Page, Arizona and the Mojave Generating Station in Nevada. After a decades-long struggle, the Mojave Generating Station and the Kayenta mine were closed down in 2005, signifying an important environmental victory. But job losses from the mine closure have put pressure on the Navajo Nation to find new sources of revenue – or, in the case of Desert Rock, to revive old sources.

The Navajo coal mine, a stone’s throw from the Dooda Desert Rock vigil, is the largest open pit coalmine in the US West. The mine is owned by BHP Billiton of Australia, the world’s largest coal company, which reported record profits last year. If work continues as planned, the Navajo Coal Mine will one day stretch hundreds of miles, from Farmington in the north to Gallup in the south, with at least six power plants spouting smoke along its length.

“BHP owns the Navajo Nation,” says Lori Goodman, spokesperson for the local environmental group Diné CARE, (Diné Citizens Against Ruining our Environment). “What BHP wants from the Navajo Nation, BHP gets.”

Goodman points out that BHP, Sithe, and other energy companies are now benefiting from the Energy Policy Act of August 2005. A provision of this act known as the Tribal Energy Resource Agreements (TERA) made it unnecessary for Indian nations to follow national laws such as the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the National Historic Preservation Act.

Frank Maisano, the spokesman for Sithe Global, argues that the Navajo Nation has a sovereign right to develop their resources. “The Navajos have coal in the ground, and that is a huge economic development resources for them.”
But Lori Goodman sees this as a cynical and self-serving approach by the energy sector. “They only recognize our sovereignty when they want to dump toxic waste on us,” Goodman said.

According to David Nez, it is this same history of resource extraction and the human rights abuse that accompanies it that makes it difficult for many Navajo to take a stand.
“It just goes back historically; the Navajo people have basically been whipped down, and after you’ve been whipped down so many times, you just yield. That’s how I look at my people; they don’t really put up resistance, they don’t say too much. People know there’s a vigil there, they oppose the plant quietly, but they won’t stand out in the middle of Window Rock with a sign and say what they think.”
Nez comes to the struggle against the coal-plants well educated in the impacts of mining on his people. Like many Navajo, Nez grew up watching family members dying of cancer caused by uranium mining.

“My mother’s side of the family is from right along the mountain, living right up along Sanostee canyon. There are two or three uranium mines up there and the tailings are still there. When it rains or when the snow melts, all the water runs down the canyon. People irrigate with that. My mother and my grandmother lived right along that wash. My grandmother died of cancer, her husband died of cancer, my aunt passed away maybe ten years ago, and that was cancer. A lot of people from that era passed away from cancer. That’s the legacy we’ve been left.”

Uranium mining and milling was banned on the Navajo Nation in 2005 when President Shirley signed the Diné Natural Resources Protection Act (DNRPA). But uranium tailings sit exposed to the elements, there are still hundreds of mines sitting open, and cancer deaths continue daily across the Navajo Nation.

According to Indian Health Services (HIS), one of the challenges of assessing the affects of air pollution from the coal plants is the cumulative affect left by decades of uranium mining. Eileen Barrett, a physician and researcher with HIS, says “The legacy of uranium mining, particularly in this region and particularly among Navajos, makes it difficult to measure the specific health impacts” of the two existing coal-fired power plants.

The Dooda Desert Rock resisters hope to end this legacy once and for all, and to turn their nation towards positive alternatives that will both bring economic development and strengthen the tribe’s morale. Support for their cause is growing outside the reservation, with everyone from the Sierra Club to the Ruckus Society lending a hand. But in order to change the course of their tribe’s future, they need to build support at home.

Building a Base

    “I want to be an elder. We all want to be elders. There’s a philosophy in Navajo that says the children shall come back to protect the elders…Well we’re here to support the elders and to fill that gap.”
    -- Navajo youth

While the Desert Rock struggle no doubt has large scale implications – a deepening gash in the Navajo earth, a billowing cloud containing millions of tons of ash and airborne waste, dozens of similar plants across the country relentlessly pumping out global warming gases – the struggle itself is being carried out by a small handful of Navajo families largely confined to one remote patch of the reservation, near the Burnham and Sanostee Chapter Houses. Of course, on the largest Reservation in the country, spanning four states and containing some of the driest wind-blown desert territory anywhere, remoteness is relative.

The Reservation is divided into five agencies represented by 110 Chapter Houses, each with 88 representatives elected every four years. Decisions made at the Chapter Houses filter up to the capital at Window Rock, and are put in place as law. Only, in the case of Desert Rock, the Dooda Desert Rock resisters say that the process has been less than transparent.

George Hardeen, spokesman for the office of President Joe Shirley, insists that the political process was fair and that a majority of Navajo want the project. “You can go back to 2004 and the opponents to Desert Rock have been at all the meetings. They have expressed their feelings and their opposition freely, so you can’t say that this is not democratic. The Tribal Council voted for it 66 to 7,” he says.

But David Nez, Hank Dixon, and Elouise Brown all say that no one really knew that the project had been approved until it was too late.

“The first I heard about,” says Nez, “was that it was a done deal.”

Before construction can begin, an environmental impact assessment (EIA) must be concluded, and hearings held to get more input on the impacts of the project. Several of the Dooda Desert Rock resisters, aided by supporters from the Black Mesa Water Coalition and others, plan to use the EIA process to educate their people. They will attend Chapter House meetings across the reservation to give talks about Desert Rock, and about the alternatives.

“When Navajo People talk about the power plants,” says David Nez, “they just call them ‘the place where the smoke comes up.’ They don’t know what they really do. So I’m going to show them, front row seat, this is what a power plant is, this is how it produces electricity, this is how it uses water, this is how it makes us sick.”

“I’m going to tell them, ‘these are the chemicals in the smoke; the white people have a name for it; these are the names and these are the diseases that they cause.’”
“When you make that connection – when people say, ‘Oh my water that runs over here that I’ve always been using, that’s gonna dry up?’ – then they’re gonna stand up and do something.”

Not just a local issue

    “We are a species that is now living on a planet that is getting sicker and sicker and sicker by the minute, because of what we have done to our Mother Earth. She is changing. We have made her change. And pretty soon she’s going to get so tired of us, she’s going to swat us off like a bunch of lice.”
    -- David Nez, Navajo Schoolteacher

Like any land struggle, the conflict over Dooda Desert Rock takes place locally; protestors confront police where a test well has been sunk near the ruins of old hogans, and where the black dust from mine blasts in the coal pit thicken the air and obscure the sacred snow-capped peaks that mark a corner of the Navajo universe. But the Dooda Desert Rock struggle is also a battle between the Blackstone Group, the Park Avenue private equity firm that owns Sithe Global and whose CEO, Stephen Schwarzman, is the 73rd richest man in the U.S – and a way of life that has persisted for centuries against all odds. Grandmother Alice Gilmore still tends her sheep on land that will soon be buried in coal waste if the demand continues. It is a struggle between a few families whose traditional language has no words for “acid rain,” “sludge,” “smog”, or even “environmentalist,” and a Washington, D.C., strategic communications firm called Bracewell & Giuliani (as in Rudolph Giuliani, the former New York City Mayor) that has countless dollars to spend on spin.

As the Dooda Desert Rock resisters will be the first to tell you, this is not just a local issue. With the Bush Administration hoping to see 150 new coal-fired power plants on line across the country by 2030, and with 85% of US rail traffic carrying coal, the stakes are high. But with states like California refusing to purchase coal power and a recent Supreme Court decision to include carbon emissions reductions in the mandate of the US Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA), environmentalists hope that the age of coal burning will soon be over.

“This is a worldwide issue,” says David Nez. “We need to stop global warming now, and we need to start right here.”
It is also an issue that goes to the heart of what traditional Navajo hold dear. Those who believe that the political process that brought Sithe in was fair argue that Desert Rock reflects the collective approval of the Navajo people by tribal leadership. However, many traditional Navajo disagree.

A letter written by Irma Bluehouse and posted on the Desert Rock blog points out that “Diné Traditional Law declares that Navajo elders, ‘teachers of the traditional laws, values and principles must always be respected and honored if the people and the government are to persevere and thrive.’

Ms. Bluehouse goes on to refer to the Diné Natural Law:
“Diné Natural Law, as passed by the Navajo Nation's law-making body -- the Navajo Nation Council -- states among other things that ‘the four sacred elements of life, air, light/fire, water and earth/pollen in all forms must be respected, honored and protected for they sustain life.’
“In summary,” she writes, “Diné Natural Law states, ‘The rights and freedom of the people to the use of the sacred elements of life as mentioned above and to the use of land, natural resources, sacred sites and other living beings must be accomplished through the proper protocol of respect and offering and these practices must be protected and preserved for they are the foundation of our spiritual ceremonies and Diné life way."

Seeking to reverse generations of financial hardship by bringing in big corporate interests puts the Navajo Nation between a rock and a hard place. "Navajos have said they need jobs," says George Hardeen. "They want those jobs here where they live. If Navajos continue to leave, they won't have their language, their culture, their way of life."
Power-plant supporters say the small band of protesters stands in the way of economic growth such as the Navajo Nation has never seen. Yet, the Gilmores and the Dixons – the two families at the heart of the conflict –maintain that it is Desert Rock that threatens their way of life. Activity there has already driven away wildlife and vegetation, destroyed ground water, and made cattle ranching impossible. The plant would also loom over Navajo burial sites.
"It's very sacred land," said Hank Dixon.

Looking Towards Alternative Power

    “We’re Indians. We’re Native Americans. We’re supposed to be environmentalists. We’re supposed to be living in harmony with Mother Earth. We should be an example for the world. But our leadership is not steering us down that path.”
    -- David Nez

In keeping with Diné Natural Law, there just may be a better way to bring jobs to the Navajo without threatening their lands and lifeways. Elouise Brown points out that the goal of the resistance is “economic development in the form of renewable energy.”

Sithe claims that Desert Rock will be a clean power plant. But according to Rob Smith, Southwest regional director for the Sierra Club, “talking about a clean coal-fired power plant is like putting lipstick on a dinosaur. We need a transition to a whole new form of energy. What they’re doing is very 20th century, and we’re in the 21st century.”

According to the Sierra Club, wind and solar can provide up to three times as many jobs as fossil-fuels, and leave the air, groundwater, and culture intact. And no one has any doubt that this sun-scorched, wind-blown land could provide power to both the growing cities of the southwest and to the Navajo Nation itself. Winona LaDuke has pointed out that “Tribal landholdings in the southwestern US…could generate enough [wind and solar] power to eradicate all fossil fuel burning power plants in the US.”

Ken Quinn, an anglo supporter who put up the wind and solar generator that powers the vigil site, hopes that the EIS hearings will include a good look at alternatives, and that the resisters will find a way to promote large-scale renewable energy. With companies like NativeSun bringing solar energy to the Hopi Reservation, wind energy being maximized on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation, and other renewable energy projects scattered around Indian country, there is hope that native lands can become a primary supplier of clean energy, taking a turn away from the trend that left native lands some of the most polluted areas of the country in the late 20th century.

But the energy sector is not naïve, and even with large-scale renewable energy development it will be difficult for native people to control their energy future. [See Native Energy Futures by Brian Awehali in LiP Magazine, summer 2006.] As resistance to coal-fired power increases, rumors persist that the Diné Power Authority is considering a solar project, though little has yet been confirmed. In the meantime, the Navajo coal mine grows deeper every day, like the pockets of Blackstone Group in Manhattan and their PR partners inside the beltway in Washington DC.

The recent victory in the New Mexico legislature marks an important turn in the struggle, and the upcoming EIA hearings and Chapter House meetings may galvanize support for the resistance. But, as Hank Dixon says with a heavy sigh as he looks out on the vast dry lands stretching out from the encampment where he’s spent much of the last 5 months, “We’re gonna win. But still have a lot of work to do.”