Coal plant pits economy vs. Navajo belief
With two plants already a dozen miles away, the last thing they want is another one even closer, a 1,500-megawatt project barely two miles in another direction.
''We want the smoke to stop,'' said 76-year-old Alice Gilmore in Navajo, raising a hand toward the belching plants.
Others say the $3 billion Desert Rock Energy Facility could invigorate the lagging economy of the Navajo Nation, which stretches across parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. Backers say it would bring $52 million a year in revenues to the tribal government and provide up to 400 jobs on a reservation where unemployment hovers around 50 percent.
The plan - the largest-ever economic development partnership for the Navajos - has prompted fierce debate pitting that economic windfall against environmental concerns and traditional culture on the 27,000-square-mile reservation, rich with natural gas, uranium and low-sulfur coal.
Some Navajos believe they are inseparable from Mother Earth and Father Sky - stewards of the land who must live in harmony with the natural world. There are no Navajo words to describe the complexities of power plants; to many elders, they
''You treat your mother with great respect and love,'' said Harry Walters, a historian and cultural anthropologist at Dine College in Tsaile, Ariz. ''You don't give your mother bad food, you don't take your mother to a place where there is bad air, you don't let her drink dirty water.''
Gilmore grew up tending goats on a homestead on the reservation, and recalls waist-high grass teeming with tiny ground lizards before the coal burning started 44 years ago. While the land is bare now, it would be obliterated by an advancing strip mine that would be tapped for the new plant.
''Sometimes she cries for it when she's alone, for the land and the destruction,'' says her daughter, Bonnie Wethington.
Walters said tribal leaders need only consider the legacy of uranium mining booms in the 1950s and 1970s, which brought cancer, lung disease and death to the Navajos - to know that Mother Earth will retaliate for coal digging and burning.
Others, however, see a gift in their land's fortune of low-sulfur but high-ash and medium-BTU coal. By various estimates the coal reserve would last a century or more of stepped-up burning.
''The creator blessed us with this land, where there is an abundance of natural resources,'' said Lucinda Bennalley, president of the Nenahnezad Chapter, one of 110 such tribal chapters, or local governing entities.
Navajo President Joe Shirley Jr., a staunch supporter of the project, says critics should ''stop picking on the little Navajo'' when countries like India and China are commissioning a new coal plant practically every week.
The debate over Desert Rock comes at a time when leaders in Congress and a number of states have begun questioning coal burning, and the volume of greenhouse gases it churns out.
The project's backers, a private equity group, are trying to build ahead of a possible regulation by Congress, the Environmental Protection Agency or states to limit carbon dioxide emissions, produced in abundance by coal burning that takes most of the blame for heating up the planet.
The Navajo Nation picked Houston-based Sithe Global Power, which is 80 percent owned by New York-based Blackstone Group, to build what amounts to a ''merchant'' plant for hire or sale. Blackstone executives say customers won't be hard to find - Phoenix or Las Vegas is the most likely consumer - among hard-pressed utilities in the booming Southwest.