Desert Rock: Tribal members push alternatives, Navajo Nation wants EPA action

By Cornelia de Bruin, Farmington Daily Times, FEBRUARY 11, 2008

FARMINGTON Navajo tribal members who believe their voices are needed in the fight against the proposed Desert Rock Power Plant their government supports claim a host of alternatives to burning coal exist on the Navajo Nation.

The group, called Diné CARE, holds a viewpoint that is squarely opposite of Desert Rock supporters, such as project spokesman Frank Maisano, of the Washington, D.C., law firm Bracewell & Giuliani LLC.

"It's a Navajo project and the Navajo are choosing to take part of their vast resources, which include coal, and advance the cause of their people," Maisano said. "The plant will generate $50 million in revenue per year, bring thousands of construction jobs, 400 permanent jobs and a wealth of indirect benefits."

The massive project, however, is held up in the federal permitting process. Project developers hope to begin construction sometime this year near Burnham in San Juan County.

Diné CARE's recent release of a report stating its views about the Desert Rock Power Plant project preceded by less than two weeks letters from Navajo President Joe Shirley, Jr. and the Bracewell & Giuliani firm notifying the Environmental Protection Agency of the tribe's intent to sue to force EPA's release of its Prevention of Significant Deterioration (air) permit.

Desert Rock organizers submitted its air permit application to the EPA in May 2004. A draft permit was issued in August 2006, followed by a series of public meetings and hearings. EPA officials are still evaluating and responding to concerns from comments received at those meetings.

In addition, Desert Rock is awaiting a final Environmental Impact Statement from the federal government.

Despite seeming to be new information submitted at the last minute, Dailan Long, spokesman for Diné CARE, said the group's 168-page report is an extension of comment it submitted to EPA in July 2007.

The report, titled "Diné Citizens Against Ruining the Environment," throws down the gauntlet to the Nation's elected officials by using the tribe's fundamental laws to make a case against the $3.7 billion power plant.

"The fundamental laws are the guiding post, the guiding principles which have existed since the dawn of life for us," Long said.

Based on the heart of Navajo culture

The fundamental laws are based on "K'é," the Navajo word describing the principle of relations among the Navajo people, and between individual tribal members and their environment.

"The Navajo Nation used these laws to ban uranium mining," Long said. "We assert that coal extraction and uranium mining are synonymous: they're equally destructive, so it's not fair to ban one substance and totally pursue another."

With that assertion, Diné CARE has set the table and invites its tribal government to discuss the issues of alternative energy in light of the tribe's fundamental laws.

"We consulted with the Center for Diné Studies, the Diné Policy Institute, the Navajo Medicine Man Association and even the peacemaking program," Long said. "We talk about the significance of water, the significance of air, how we conceptualize the health and environment, and how solar, wind and energy development comport with these fundamental laws. It's very much from a Navajo perspective."

The fundamental laws state that the Navajo, the Diné, are responsible for maintaining "Hozhó," harmony, in their lives, the report's introduction states.

"Everything comes in pairs and bipolar opposites counterbalance each other as insinuated within the Navajo concept of "Alch'i Silá," it states. "The definition implicates Mother/Father, male/female, up/down, Earth and Sky; these opposites are not mutually exclusive but they related to each other and are interconnected to maintain equilibrium."

The state of balance resulting from living in accordance to the laws leads to "k'é; that everything relates to another and nothing is independent in and of itself."

"We have not seen it," George Hardeen, spokesman for Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley Jr., said regarding the Diné CARE report. "They've been invited to the table and they are the ones who walked out."

Hardeen referred to the Dooda Desert Rock group that has also protested the power plant project.

"President Shirley went out to talk to them when they first started their roadblock (to the Burnham site) in 2006," Hardeen said.

Long, spokesman for Diné CARE, said the group plans to get a copy to President Joe Shirley, Jr. and other selected tribal council members soon.

Group: A better way to generate power

Diné CARE claims renewable energy sources such as wind and solar exist on the Nation to create more high-quality, life-long jobs for the Navajo than Desert Rock would give the tribe. It also raises the point that having a third power plant built near where two plants already are sited does not equal environmental justice for the people who live nearest to the facilities.

Arizona Public Service operates the Four Corners Power Plant in Upper Fruitland, while Public Service Company of New Mexico operates San Juan Generating Station in Waterflow. The Four Corners Plant is located on the Navajo Nation. Both plants, which are two of the larger coal-fired operations in the West, employ hundreds in San Juan County.

Long is a resident of Burnham, where the Desert Rock plant would be built.

"When the draft environmental impact hearings took place in the summer of 2007, 99 percent of the grassroots Navajo people opposed Desert Rock," he said.

Dooda Desert Rock founder Lucy Willie joined Diné CARE when it unveiled its alternative energy study in Santa Fe Jan. 18.

"She was still standing with us, which speaks to how Navajo grassroots oppose the project," Long said. "It really counters what Navajo Nation President Shirley says about the Navajo Nation supporting the plant when it's really his administration and DPA (Diné Power Authority)."

The tribe formed Diné Power to promote development of power using Navajo coal. The entity works closely with Sithe Global Power, LLC, to develop the Desert Rock plant.

Diné CARE characterizes the project as a money hog.

"The Navajo Nation is putting money into the coal furnace without any type of returns," Long said.

The tribe, he said, has invested about $14 million on the project since the 1990s. Diné CARE said it's a matter of throwing good money after bad.

"I think the misuse of funds is pretty apparent given the fact that the Navajo Nation did send some individuals to Hawaii. There's outrage on the reservation about that," Long said. "This mistrust and mismanagement of funds is coming out, and Desert Rock is carrying on that spirit."

At least 400 people claiming ties to the Navajo Nation attended an education conference in Hawaii last fall, hundreds more representatives than any other tribe represented at the event except for the Hawaiian delegation, in whose state it was held.

What those most affected say

Ecos Consulting of Durango, Colo., the firm that prepared the report for Diné CARE, sent a person fluent in Navajo to interview 39 people whose homes are nearest the Desert Rock Power Plant site those people who are being told to move off of land their families have occupied for generations.

Their characterization of the tribe's government underscores the anger of which Long speaks.

"We need to save our cultural traditional prayer sites, as well as our traditional burial grounds from energy corporations in any possible way we can," stated Stakeholder No. 9, of Fruitland. "We can try to get our government to listen, but sadly they only care about what money they can get for themselves, for example, the RINGS."

The stakeholder referred to a Tribal Council expense of $50,000 that Navajo Nation Council delegates approved on a 71-10 vote in July 2007 that they tacked onto a $3 million measure that would provide funding for summer youth employment. The money came from an Undesignated, Unreserved Fund, a sort of emergency fund that the council regularly taps, according to the Associated Press. Delegates wanted to "help identify and distinguish officials from the public," according to Legislative Counsel Ray Etcitty.

"They never asked me for my permission, they just came and told me to accept their payment and not to build anything on the home site, or construct any more homes on the land," said Stakeholder No. 1, identified as a farmer/rancher, of an experience with Navajo Mine representatives. "I still remember the day we came home from Window Rock, my father was very happy he was going to get a nice house with different rooms. He died waiting for a good house from Utah International, and to this day we haven't got a nice house out there. They have not brought the power or the water."

And from Stakeholder No. 14, a tribal business administrator: "We have had oil and gas fields, coal mines, power plants, uranium mines in the past but we still live in poverty with nowhere to go. We have our children going on drugs and alcohol instead of living in harmony like we were taught by our parents. We need good leaderships in Navajo government and local government to save our children's future."

Tribe seeks to force EPA into action

At the same time the grassroots group extends its invitation to the tribe's government, those elected officials put the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on notice that they are tired of waiting for an operating permit to be issued for Desert Rock.

Bracewell & Giuliani, the tribe's legal firm, informed EPA of its plans in a letter sent Jan. 17, claiming the federal agency should have acted within one year of its deeming the Desert Rock application to be complete.

"Every day, every month, every year they don't have this (permit) is another day, month, year the tribe doesn't get the economic benefits of the plant," said Bracewell & Giuliani's Maisano, a spokesman for Desert Rock. "Forty months when it should have been 12 months is a little over the top."

"We have no other option open to us," Hardeen said. "We understand that EPA tends to go over that, that it's tough for EPA to go through its process in a year."

"We found it to be complete May 21, 2004," Colleen McKaughn, assistant director of EPA Region Nine's Air Division, said. "We were supposed to act on it within 12 months; the Clean Air Act states that, but I don't know why it says that. I don't think it's possible to act that fast."

The federal entity has no estimate of when it will make a decision regarding the permit application, she added.

It's been a long time coming

In the case of Desert Rock, McKaughn and her colleagues are working their way through responses to the 1,000 people and entities that filed comment regarding the Desert Rock application.

Some of the comments are from outside the Four Corners region, but 750 of them center on the subject of environmental justice and were received from people who described themselves as locals. Comment came from the Hualapi Nation, Ute Mountain Ute and Southern Ute tribes, McKaughn said. Global warming was also of concern to them.

EPA's permit consideration process was further hampered by a long discussion of how to conduct the modeling process it planned to use to collect data, McKaughn said, by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on greenhouse gases and by a challenge to EPA's mercury emissions standard.

"The issues were very difficult to work through and people expressed very strong opinions," she said. "PSD permits are very complex, as is the type of process that's used for areas that have clean air."

Sithe Global Power, LLC, seeks a Prevention of Significant Deterioration permit for the facility.

"We looked at emissions from everywhere and found no adverse impact on the ambient air quality and Class 1 areas," McKaughn said. "Our data shows that Desert Rock won't have the effects that people say that it will. This permit can't be the end-all, be-all for everything."

Shirley maintains, nonetheless, that EPA's delay in permitting the plant holds the tribe hostage economically.

"All we ask is that EPA leaders ... act without delay to complete the permit review and analysis, and issue the final permit as soon as possible to avoid further burden to the Navajo Nation," he wrote in his letter to EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson.

"I feel for the tribe. It's frustrating to be at the end of the process and see the goal post moving farther away," Maisano said.

Cornelia de Bruin:



Reprinted as an historical reference document under the Fair Use doctrine of international copyright law.