When I turn on the lights or the water faucet here in Tucson, I can’t help but think of home, and the enormous coal plants there.
I am a Diné (Navajo) woman who came to Tucson to study microbiology at the University of Arizona. You might not know that most of the water we drink here in Tucson comes from the Central Arizona Project canal, whose pumps are powered by the Navajo Generating Station (NGS) coal plant on the Navajo Nation near Page in Northern Arizona.
Even though it’s nearly 400 miles away, Tucson Electric Power gets a portion of the electricity that we use in our homes, schools and businesses from the Navajo plant. Miles of transmission lines, sometimes derided on the reservation as “white man’s gods,” bring the electricity from my home on the Navajo Nation to my home here in Tucson.
Making electricity out of coal is a dirty process. At NGS, it starts at the Kayenta Mine on Black Mesa, where, decades ago, Diné and Hopi families were forced to relocate to make way for the massive black pit. Cranes the size of large buildings fill trains with coal that feed NGS, whose trio of 775-foot smokestacks emit the most carbon dioxide of any single facility in the Southwest.
Last month, the utility owners of NGS announced they will exit the plant in 2019 since it’s no longer economically viable. Power can be sourced from cheaper — and cleaner — alternatives. While NGS will soon be an afterthought here in Tucson, we can’t forget about the Navajo and Hopi communities that have suffered most from the pollution, and will be most affected by its closure.
Behemoth coal plants have soiled Navajo and Hopi skies, water and land even while more than half of my people have been left off the grid.
In addition to NGS, TEP owns a stake of the San Juan and Four Corners coal plants in the Four Corners region, and the Springerville coal plant, located between the Fort Apache and Zuni Reservations. Like NGS, these plants also feel the financial burden of coal, and the San Juan plant is now expected to close in 2022, decades earlier than originally planned.
The Navajo and Hopi who work at TEP’s coal plants are concerned about the future. As the Navajo and San Juan plants prepare to close, it is critical that TEP, which has a 7.5 percent ownership stake in NGS and owns about 20 percent of the San Juan plant, takes a leadership role to make sure the tribal lands are reclaimed and that tribal economies are sustained.
Navajo and Hopi lands are ideal for solar and wind development, which can create sustainable jobs and make use of the existing transmission lines leading from the coal plants. We should all encourage TEP to support tribal communities by committing to buy a share of power from future renewable energy projects developed there.
When TEP supports Navajo solar and wind instead of Navajo coal, Tucsonans will feel a lot better about where our electricity and water comes from.