PAGE, Ariz. – Like many coal-fired plants across the country, the Navajo Generating Station in Arizona, which employs hundreds of workers, is at the brink of closure.
The flailing company is expected to be shut down next year once a utility firm takes over ownership.
But the Trump administration is vowing to save it – by possibly forcing nearby power companies to use its plant.
President Trump’s appointee at the U.S. Department of Interior, Timothy Petty, assistant secretary for water and science, wrote a letter to Central Arizona Project—a water supplier that uses power from the coal plant – telling the agency that it had the legal “authority” to require it to use the coal plant’s power.
In the letter, dated June 1, Petty said the 1968 Colorado River Basin Project gives Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke the authority to decide what power source the project will use.
“With the 1968 Act in mind, the department expects to consider several options going forward, including the feasibility of continued use of NGS-provided power,” the letter said.
That could provide a much-needed lifeline to the coal plant as it struggles to stay up and running.
Tom McCann, CAP deputy general manager, said he’s looking at it from an economic prospective and wants the cheapest option.
“Whether that energy comes from coal or it comes from solar or it comes from nuclear or where it comes from—I don’t care,” McCann said. “I want to provide the water reliably at the lowest possible cost.”
The two sides are continuing discussions to figure out the coal plant’s future.
Karin Wadsack, the earth and environment project director at Northern Arizona University, said coal is the most expensive option.
“At this point, the cost of electricity from coal, which has been stable over a very long period of time, is no longer competitive with those other sources,” said Wadsack, adding that hydraulic fracking, natural gas, wind, and solar are cheaper options.
She also has concerns about the federal government stepping in on energy decisions.
“That is interfering with the market and that in the end is going to have an economic effect on the cost of electricity,” Wadsack said. “So, that ripples back to all the people that are paying for electricity.”
But this plant is particularly unique in that it is operated and run on the largest Native American reservation in the country—the Navajo Nation, which is comparable in size to the state of West Virginia. The NGS employs 750 workers, and 90 percent of them are Native American.
Marie Justice has been a coal miner for three decades and said the U.S. Department of the Interior has a responsibility to keep the plant open after signing a 70-year agreement decades ago that’s not supposed to end until 2044.
“For me, it’s a chance to be home, to be where I was raised,” said Justice, who is part of the Navajo Nation. “This (is) my homeland.”
U.S. coal mining operations started in the mid-1700’s and even dates all the way back to the 1300’s when Native Americans used coal for cooking and heating.
“We, as coal miners, have provided energy through World War II and through the years. And, all of a sudden, at this point, everybody’s running,” Justice said. “But you know what? This has been the steady energy for this country.”
The potential shutdown of the coal company has triggered rallies at the State House – and even lawsuits.
Peabody Energy, the United Mine Workers Association and the Hopi Tribe are suing Central Arizona Power. In a press release, they jointly said NGS was built at the direction of the federal government to serve as the power source for the CAP and to “help fulfill the federal government’s trust responsibility by providing jobs and revenues for the Hopi. Much of Arizona’s growth and prosperity has come from the generation of affordable power and access to water.”
Justice believes the price of natural gas is volatile and coal miner Myron Richardson, also part of the Navajo Nation, said coal is reliable.
“This is home, everything that you see right here is home to me. Why can’t I have the same opportunity as everybody else in the world to work from home?” Richardson said. “Why do I have to leave because they want to shut the plant down earlier than what the federal government has regulated them to?”