Peabody critics present alternative
By Cindy Yurth
Special to the Times 12.29.05
HOTEVILLA, Ariz. – While the new Hopi leadership wrangles to pare down the
tribal budget in the wake of the imminent Black Mesa Mine closure, it isn’t
all gloom and doom on the mesas this month.
“We should be dancing in the streets,” said Vernon Masayesva, executive
director of the Black Mesa Trust, one of several local environmental groups that
have long opposed surface mining on Black Mesa and use of underground water
in the accompanying coal slurry pipeline.
But what about the economic impact on the two tribes, who have been
splitting the mineral lease revenues from the mine?
Masayesva’s group, along with four other environmental organizations, has
proposed a solution: They believe the very company that caused the mine to shut
down should underwrite the “just transition” to a more sustainable economy
for the Hopi and Navajo people.
The mine is shutting down Dec. 31 because its sole customer, the Mohave
Generating Station near Laughlin, Nev., must stop operating until it can meet
standards of the Clean Air Act.
Mohave is under a consent decree stemming from a 1998 lawsuit by the Grand
Canyon Trust and other environmental groups. The environmentalists want
Southern California Edison, majority owner of the power plant, to funnel some $20
million a year into a trust fund for the tribes.
The money would be used to retrain displaced miners, help replace lost
revenue from the mineral leases, and – perhaps most importantly in the long run –
start to build the world’s largest solar-powered generating station.
Polluters would pay
Where would the money come from? The sale of “pollution credits” Edison and
the other plant owners will have once Mohave shuts down.
Under the law, the power plant’s owners will be left with a valuable
commodity once Mohave ceases to emit pollutants. Called sulfur dioxide allowances,
these “pollution credits” can be freely traded and are worth millions to
other utilities that have pollution problems of their own and need to acquire
The environmental coalition estimates Edison will receive about $20 million
a year for its share of the Mohave sulfur dioxide allowances.
“We’re asking the California Public Utilities Commission to require
Southern California Edison … to help us transition to a sustainable economy based
on sustainable forms of energy,” explained Enei Begaye of the Indigenous
Environmental Network, one of the groups pushing the plan along with the Black Mesa
Trust, Black Mesa Water Coalition, Grand Canyon Trust and the Navajo group
Tó Nizhóní Aní.
Not surprisingly, Edison issued a statement saying that it has plans for
that money and would oppose the environmentalists’ Just Transition Plan. Any
money generated from the sale of allowances belongs to the utility’s ratepayers,
in its view, and could not be rerouted to the Black Mesa communities even if
Edison wanted to do so.
Begaye said the groups haven’t brought their plan before the CPUC yet. “We
have been waiting for the optimal time to do so,” she wrote in an e-mail,
noting that the commission is currently hearing a petition from Edison to
increase the rates it charges its customers. She said a decision could come as
early as January.
California utility regulators have been responsive to tribal people’s
concerns in the past, listening to their worries about ground water pumping by the
mine and directing Mohave owners to find another water source for the Black
Mesa coal slurry.“However, neither tribe would have access to the money until
the allocation plan is in place,” Begaye wrote.
At a recent “Coal, Water, Wind and Sun” symposium at Hotevilla, the
environmental groups distributed questionnaires asking how the money should be
allocated among the tribes, laid-off miners, Navajo chapters and Hopi villages.
Begaye declined to reveal how responses are trending, saying that few had
been received so far and a more detailed survey would be handed out at future
meetings to introduce the plan.
Additional meetings took place Dec. 20 in Tuba City and Dec. 21 in
Solar energy centerpiece
By far the most ambitious part of the plan is the proposed construction of a
$1.5 billion, 1,000-megawatt power plant straddling the border between the
Hopi and Navajo reservations.
Masayesva told the Hotevilla crowd that the plant could be built on just
over six square miles of land, provide an annual income to the tribes of $8 to
$10 million, and create 250 permanent jobs. It would utilize solar-dish
technology from Stirling Energy Systems of Phoenix.
While the initial cost is formidable, Masayesva said it could be financed
through a combination of tax credits and subsidies, grants, low-interest loans,
municipal bonds and renewable energy credits, along with money from the
proposed utility trust fund.
And as fossil fuel prices climb ever higher, solar energy becomes ever more
competitive – in fact, Douglas Obal of Stirling Energy Systems confirmed that
his company is in negotiations with Southern California Edison itself to
build a solar plant about half the size of the one Masayesva is proposing.California utilities are under pressure from Gov. Arnold Schwarzeneggerto convert 20 percent of their generating capacity to renewable energy sources by 2010.
“We will come up with the money, we will come up with the experts, we will do the whole thing for the tribes,” Masayesva said. “All they have to do isgive us the go-ahead.”
Neither tribe has addressed the issue yet, but newly elected Hopi Vice
Chairman Todd Honyaema Sr. was at the symposium and said he was intrigued.
“I will take these ideas back to the chairman and council,” he promised the
crowd, noting that he would have to be sure a majority of Hopis are in favor
of the plan before he supports it.
Navajo President Joe Shirley Jr. was invited to the Hotevilla symposium, but
did not attend. Shirley spokesman George Hardeen said he did not think the
president’s office received any information on the meeting.
Peabody doubts viability
The solar-energy project is not news to Peabody Western Coal Co., operator
of the Black Mesa Mine, but the company does not think it’s a viable
In a 2004 public relations packet, Peabody warned that the 250 jobs promised
by Masayesva “would not come close to replacing the 600 high-paying jobs
currently needed for (the) Mohave project.”
“Almost all operational jobs for solar projects would be laborers to keep
the solar panels clean; few jobs would be skilled, high-tech or administrative,”
the packet reads.
Local mineworkers’ leader Marie Justice warns that solar energy proponents
are underestimating the practical problems they would encounter.
It would cost many times more to build enough solar capacity to replace
Mohave than to retrofit the coal-fired plant, according to studies commissioned
by Southern California Edison. In addition, a solar plant large enough to
replace Mohave would use much more water than the controversial slurry line,
“People of good faith have investigated these alternatives and found that
each has very significant drawbacks that I think the supporters are
understating,” Justice said.
Masayesva countered that the age of coal mining on Black Mesa is over. He
noted that Peabody’s lease expires Dec. 31 – the same day that Mohave is
scheduled to close.
Peabody has applied for a lease extension, and company officials are
optimistic that the tangle of problems attending the power plant, slurry line and
coalmine will be resolved.
Others aren’t so sure. Under the 2005 Energy Act, Title V – Indian Energy
Development and Self-Determination – hold that the Navajo and Hopi tribes must
establish a joint regulatory policy before dealing with Peabody, since the
two tribes own the coal jointly.
“We have a lot of differences on how we view mining,” said Masayesva, a
former Hopi tribal chairman. “I don’t see us formulating a joint policy.”
If the Black Mesa Mine never reopens, that’s fine with Masayesva.
“In a few more days, put on your dancing shoes,” he told the Hotevilla