Closing time at Navajo power plant

'As coal markets end ... we stand to benefit from the development of clean-energy projects'

Harrison Mantas

Cronkite News

WASHINGTON – The Navajo Generating Station will shut down for good in a matter of days, the plant’s owners announced this week, once the plant burns through its remaining supply of coal.

The closure marks the final chapter in a two-year fight to save the aging power plant and the affiliated Kayenta coal mine, which together had provided hundreds of jobs in one of the most economically depressed parts of the state.

The plant’s majority owner, Salt River Project, said in an email Friday that the roughly 500 employees now at the plant – most of whom are working on contract – will be cut to 50.

Of the 433 workers who were at the plant before the closure was announced, SRP said about 280 accepted offers to relocate to jobs in different facilities, while others either refused or opted to retire.

The power plant had long been expected to close no later than the end of this year, but SRP confirmed this week that the final day will probably come by mid- to late next week.

The Navajo Nation and Hopi Tribe are disproportionately affected by this closure. Calls and emails to both tribes seeking comment Friday were not immediately returned.

But in an email in August, shortly before the closure of the Kayenta mine, a Navajo Nation spokesman estimated the mine’s closure would mean the loss of roughly $20 million to $30 million in revenue.

News of the closure this week also brought renewed calls from Navajo community groups for a transition away from coal toward renewable energy, along with more robust water protections and a return to “Diné Fundamental Law and values in energy policy decisions.”

“The closing of NGS represents an opportunity to right the longstanding wrongs on water that our people have suffered as a result of coal operations,” said a statement Friday from Carol Davis, a director with Navajo environmental group Diné C.A.R.E.

In 2017, SRP announced that power from the coal-fired plant could no longer compete with cheaper natural gas, and said it would close NGS no later than the end of 2019.

Attempts to find an outside buyer who would continue running the plant failed and in March, the Navajo Nation ended its bid to have the Navajo Transitional Energy Co. buy and run both the mine and power plant. NTEC was created in 2013 to serve a similar function for the Four Corners Power Plant.

In the meantime, the Navajo Nation has taken some steps toward embracing green energy, bringing the second phase of the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority’s Kayenta Solar facility online in September.

The “Light Up Navajo” program, which brings in utilities to connect Navajo households to the grid, connected 233 homes in the spring and a second phase is planned for next year.

Rep. Tom O’Halleran, D-Arizona, whose district includes both power plant and the Kayenta Mine, introduced a bill in September to provide economic development and job training to people affected by the closures.

The bill is co-sponsored by Democratic Reps. Ruben Gallego and Greg Stanton, both of Phoenix, and Ann Kirkpatrick of Tucson. It also has the support of Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez and Hopi Tribal Chairman Timothy L. Nuvangyaoma. It’s currently awaiting a committee hearing in the House.

Nicole Horseherder of the group Tó Nizhóní Ání sees the plant and mine closures as an opportunity for the Navajo Nation.

“As coal markets end and local power plants and mines close, we stand to benefit from the development of clean-energy projects and from an economic transition that prioritizes local community voices,” she said in a written statement.

In the same statement, Marie Gladue from the Black Mesa Water Coalition said “we need to heal from the wrongs of the past,” and called for energy and water policies “in line with our values and virtues as stewards of the natural world.”

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