When the Navajo Nation’s first Tribal Council began signing deals with large energy corporations in the 1920s, the promise was that uranium, oil, gas and coal leases would bring in millions in royalty revenues and create thousands of jobs for the community.
Today, nine decades later, the Navajo people of the Black Mesa region are still living with those broken promises every day. The unemployment rate in the Navajo Nation hovers around 54%, and the population’s median income is just $7,500/year.
Most Navajo households live without power, even as utility lines run right over their heads. And while children are growing up without running water, drinking water on reservation land is given to mining operations for free, and for years was used to slurry coal hundreds of miles away to power surrounding cities.
Four Sacred Mountains, Four Toxic Power Plants
The Black Mesa region of Arizona is sacred land for the Navajo, surrounded by four sacred mountains in Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado which form the boundaries of the Navajo’s traditional homeland. As it stands, the reservation is circumscribed and permeated by the fossil fuel industry: four large, toxic coal-fired power plants surround the region, creating air pollution that rivals big cities, and two coal mines operated by Peabody Coal Company are located on the reservation itself, along with a third coal-powered generating station.
Most Navajo households live without power, even as utility lines run right over their heads.
But things are changing. The Black Mesa Water Coalition (BMWC), formed in 2001, shared its first big success with the community and other organizations when the Mohave Generating Station was shut down. Since the early 1970’s, Peabody had been mixing groundwater from the Navajo Aquifer—the sole source of drinking water in the region—with coal from one of their mines to slurry it 273 miles away to the Laughlin, Nevada station. This was using anywhere from 3,700–4,500 acre-feet of Navajo water each year, drawing down the area’s springs and wells. It was an absurd (and outdated) use of water; the Mohave Generating Station’s slurry pipeline was the last of its kind anywhere in the world when it was shut down in 2005 due in large part to the efforts of BMWC.
The organization’s ultimate goal is to close all of the mines on the Black Mesa reservation, and to replace the coal-fired power plants fed by the mines with renewable energy. But this will be no small feat, and the people of BMWC understand first-hand the complexity of the issue.
“Being an indigenous environmental organization is really different than a big environmental group,” says Wahleah Johns of BMWC. “A lot of national environmental groups are not from the community that’s being impacted or fighting industry; they live in other places, and they’re not related to the people who work for those industries.”
“Being an indigenous environmental organization is really different than a big environmental group.”
Removing fossil fuels from Black Mesa means removing jobs. And although the Navajo do not own any of the mines or generating stations, they receive funds in the form of royalty revenues which help support Navajo health and social services.
“It’s not only about transitioning our utility,” says Nicole Alex of BMWC, “but also, how are we going to transition this society that has been impacted, and how are we going to transition this economy that has been devastated by energy development?”
The Navajo Green Economy
BMWC sees a future for the Navajo Nation in the green economy. In 2009, the organization led the Navajo Green Economy Coalition to success when it passed the Green Jobs Legislation through the Navajo Tribal Council. This was the first green economy legislation passed by any tribal government, and it created a Green Economy Fund and Commission within the tribal government itself.
The Coalition also established a business incubator to help people create green businesses. The idea, explains Jihan Gearon of BMWC, is to “help green businesses along and incubate them so that they can be successful for the people who are investing in and owning those businesses, which are going to be our Navajo people.”
Projects to build the Navajo green economy are underway. The Black Mesa Solar Project started with the goal of establishing a solar manufacturing facility and a series of solar panels on abandoned mine land. These are lands that have been contaminated by mining activity and are not suitable for other uses, such as home sites or grazing land.
“Why not put solar on those areas?” asks Gearon, “There’s existing transmission lines, there’s existing structure—why not turn that land into something positive that can bring income to the people of the region and begin the transition away from coal?”
“Why not turn that land into something that can bring income to the people of the region and begin the transition away from coal?”
Uplifting the traditional Navajo economy is a major goal of the developing green economy. The Navajo Wool Market Improvement Project works to help wool producers on the Navajo Nation get a fair price for their products, by cutting out some of the steps along the market chain and establishing more direct marketing of wool, spun wool, and rugs. The Food Sovereignty Project is building infrastructure for traditional food production, with the idea that traditional foods could be marketed across the region, providing both income for local producers and healthy, locally-produced food for communities.
“What’s very important for us is to create on-the-ground projects that people can see of what the green economy means,” says Gearon. “There can be power without pollution, and energy without injustice.