Coal Mining on Navajo Nation’s Land
Navajo Nation is the largest area occupied by Native American Tribes.¹ The Navajo Reservation spans the Colorado Plateau and sprawls across Northeast Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah. Navajo Nation is famous for the astonishing scenic wonders such as Monument Valley, Shiprock Peak, and Window Rock.² Despite the fact that the surface of the Navajo Reservation is scarce of shrubbery, the rich natural resources underneath Navajo land draw investors’ attention. Over the last century, many companies have come to Navajo Nation and persuaded the Navajo to engage in land development activities such as livestock ranching, uranium mining, and coal mining.³
One of the most famous natural resource developing project on Navajo Nation is the Najavo Generating Station plant (NGS plant). The NGS plant lease started in January 19, 1971, and expires December 22, 2019. For the last thirty-nine years, NGS has provided power by pumping Colorado River water for the Central Arizona Project, as well as the electrical power to customers in Arizona, Nevada and California.⁴ While the NGS plant contributes to supply water to grow the city of Phoenix and benefits other Non-Native American cities, what Navajo receives are the by-products of mining activities: polluted water, infertile soil, and unclean air. Just as an activist from the environmental group Diné Care said, “[t]hey are interrupting a way of life, a way of religion and harmony and balance between man and nature.”⁵ In addition to the environmental harm, the haze caused by the mining activities contributes to asthma and other respiratory diseases and negatively affects the residents’ health.⁶
In the last few years, many environmentalists have fought against the federal government to improve the environment of Navajo. On 2013, Diné Care and the National Parks Conservation Association moved to have the United States District Court for the Northern District of California issue an order requiring the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to issue a final ruling within one year that would establish the Best Available Retrofit Technology (BART) for the Navajo Generating Station.⁷ The Court granted the EPA’s motions for summary judgment and dismissed the action.
In 2017, the Hopi Tribe, whose reservation in encompassed by the boundaries of the Navajo reservation, challenged the EPA’s federal implementation plan under the Clean Air Act for the NGS due to a fault in the rulemaking process. The Hopi Tribe is also affected by the haze produced by the coal mining and coal powering that hinders the view of Grand Canyon. The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit denied the Tribe’s motion and held that Tribe’s exclusion from a technical working group did not constitute a violation of duty to consult with the Tribe on the part of the government.⁸
In 2017, Petitioner Yazzie, several tribal conservationists, and certain non-profit environmental organizations sought final review of the EPA’s source-specific Federal Implementation Plan (FIP) under the Clean Air Act (CAA) for NGS and urged the closure of the NGS.⁹ The Court denied the petition for review and entitled EPA to defer to EPA’s conclusion that FIP was better than BART for controlling emissions.¹⁰
Nowadays, cheaper oil and gas is gradually replacing coal in the energy market. As technology develops, renewable and clean energy such as solar and wind energy is more and more popular. Navajo’s coal economy is built on environmental exploitation; however, Navajo’s economy is also hurting as a result of the depression of coal industry.
In 2009, the plant’s operator, Salt River Project (SRP) offer to extend the NGS plant lease until 2044; however, SPR never signed the lease and even announced that they would close the plant by 2019.[xi] Closing the plant will cause the Navajo to lose revenue and thousands of jobs. Now Navajo is stuck with the dilemma of environmental and economic issues. When investors leave with “harvested” wealth, where is Navajo’s clean future?
¹ Navajo Nation Indian Reservation (Four Corners Region, Geotourism Map Guide), Nᴀᴛ’ʟ. Gᴇᴏɢʀᴀᴘʜɪᴄ, https://fourcornersgeotourism.com/content/navajo-nation-indian-reservation/fca81f6c25ff21711e54, (last visited Apr. 25, 2019).
² Navajo Nation Business Website, http://navajobusiness.com/fastFacts/locationMap2.htm, (last visited Apr. 25, 2019).
³ James Rainey, Lighting the West, Dividing a Tribe, NBC Nᴇᴡs (Dec. 18, 2017), https://www.nbcnews.com/specials/navajo-coal.
⁴ Eɴᴇʀɢʏ Iɴғᴏʀᴍᴀᴛɪᴏɴ Aᴅᴍɪɴɪsᴛʀᴀᴛɪᴏɴ, U.S. Dᴇᴘᴛ. ᴏғ Eɴᴇʀɢʏ, "Existing Electric Generating Units in the United States, 2007" (Excel). 2007. Retrieved 2009-07-09.
⁵ supra note 3.
⁶ Ethan Goffman, Tʜᴇ Eɴᴠɪʀᴏɴᴍᴇɴᴛᴀʟ Mᴀɢᴀᴢɪɴᴇ, Surrounded by Coal Plants, Navajo Nation Fights for a Clean Future (Aug. 3, 2017), https://emagazine.com/navajo-nation-fights-for-a-clean-future/.
⁷ Care v. United States Envtl. Prot. Agency, 2013 WL 6327530 (N.D. Cal. 2013).
⁸ Hopi Tribe v. U.S. Envtl. Prot. Agency, 851 F.3d 957, 958 (9th Cir. 2017).
⁹ Yazzie v. U.S. Envtl. Prot. Agency, 851 F.3d 960, 964 (9th Cir. 2017).
¹¹ Andrew Curley, The Navajo Nation’s Coal Economy Was Built to be Exploited, Hɪɢʜ Cᴏᴜɴᴛʀʏ Nᴇᴡs (June 28, 2017), https://www.hcn.org/articles/analysis-tribal-affairs-cleaning-up-coal-on-navajo-nation.