Navajo Nation split on coal deal

Largest American Indian tribe weighs economic benefits and environmental impact

Retired nurse Cynthia Dixon told "America Tonight" that she's experiencing health problems she feels were caused by the coal mine less than a mile from her home.
America Tonight/ Al Jazeera America

As the Navajo Nation moves toward buying a coal mining plant in New Mexico, controversy has erupted within the tribe. Environmentalists say the mine devastates the local ecosystem, while advocates tout it as a way to bring money to the impoverished community.  

Cynthia Dixon, a retired nurse, told Al Jazeera that emissions from the coal mine, a mile from her home, are making her sick.

"Sometimes we get runny noses. Even though we don't have a cold we get runny nose. We cough and sometimes feel nauseated," Dixon said in a segment aired on Al Jazeera's "America Tonight" earlier this week.

When the Australia-based company BHP Billiton announced it would pull out of the plant in 2016, it was good news for Dixon -- until she found out that her tribe, the Navajo Nation, could soon be a new investor.

"It's just about money. Nobody cares whose health is going down or who has health problems," she said.

Tribal lawmakers voted Monday to form a limited-liability company that would run the mine, located near Farmington, N.M. The tribe said it will decide by next July 1 whether to purchase the mine from the Australian firm for about $85 million.

Navajo President Ben Shelly must sign off on the creation of the Navajo Transitional Energy Co. Lawmakers said it would be part of a transition to renewable energy production in the future, though critics of the mine purchase don't believe that.

Tribal officials estimate the tribe could turn a profit of at least $200 million every year, which would represent a major increase in revenue for a native government dealing with a 40 percent poverty rate and high unemployment.

"Look at how fast technology advances every day. Coal does have a future, and at some point that future will be realized," Navajo Nation Council Delegate LoRenzo Bates told Al Jazeera.

Still, demand for the coal, which feeds the Four Corners Power Plant in northwestern New Mexico, could decrease in coming years.

The plant's operator, Arizona Public Service Co. (APS), has said in recent years that it plans to shut down three of its units and purchase two more from South California Edison.

APS has said its production will decrease after the transaction, which it estimates will reduce nitrogen oxide emissions by 36 percent.

Navajo environmentalists feel ecological concerns outweigh any potential economic benefit.

Brett Isaac studied economics and then started his own solar energy company, Shanto Energy. He believes coal is dirty fuel and disrespects the environment.

"Utilizing coal as our means of income kind of counteracts all the things that we were brought up to believe and hold as sacred," Isaac said.

Navajo Council Delegate Dwight Witherspoon said he is as concerned about the use of fossil fuels and their impact on the world and the climate. But, he said, "for us to engage in the transition to more efficient or renewable type of energies, this provides us essentially with revenue to assist us in that transition."

Tribal lawmakers saw the formation of the company to run a mine as an opportunity to gain control of resources on the reservation and ensure that the jobs and revenue that come with them are protected. The mine's coal has generated more than $40 million for the Navajo Nation, Shelly said.

The Navajo Nation owns and operates about a dozen businesses on the reservation, including a utility company, a transit system, a housing authority, radio stations, an oil and gas company and shopping centers.

Al Jazeera and The Associated Press

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New Mexico
Indian Country

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