For the 500 years since Christopher Columbus landed, Native Americans have been killed, suffered deadly epidemics, and been dispossessed of their land and deprived of their culture. While the United States has slowly come to terms with at least some of this history, native reservations remain among the most impoverished places in America. They are also victims of environmental injustice, as mines, powerlines, toxic dumps, and pipelines have been built near or on tribal lands with insufficient input from the inhabitants.
The Navajo, whose reservation is located in Arizona and three other states, are one nation that has long suffered such injustice. Three coal plants are located within the reservation, while four others surround it. Emissions from such plants raise the danger of heart attacks, strokes, asthma, bronchitis and lung cancer. Yet many of the reservation’s 200,000 residents lack electricity and running water. Most of the energy generated on tribal lands goes to outside consumers.
Meanwhile, Peabody energy is seeking to expand the Kayenta coal mine, located on Navajo land. The expansion is backed by the official Navajo government for the jobs it creates. Yet it faces fierce opposition from local activist groups due to the likely environmental harm as well as desecration of holy sites, as reported in The New York Times.
Besides coal plants, the Navajo reservation suffers from “a history of uranium mining, and historical and recent oil and gas development,” says Jihan Gearon, Executive Director of the Blackwater Mesa Coalition. Emissions from these plants cause haze that contributes to asthma and other respiratory diseases. Residents have complained of “health impacts including cancers, respiratory ailments, and developmental issues in children,” says Gearon. She points to one indigenous elder who explained that his house and nearby “animals, and even the vegetation are often covered in a layer of black soot.”
Despite these problems, the Navajo Generating Station (NGS), the only federal-government operated coal station, is not being made to fully comply with clean-air regulations until 2044, although such cleanup is required within five years for other coal plants. The government ruling on the NGS is currently being appealed by three Navajo community organizations, To’ Nizhoni Ani, the Black Mesa Water Coalition and Diné Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment.
“Smokestack pollution from NGS sickens our skies and land and children and elders just as coal smokestack pollution does anywhere, so why is the Navajo community afforded less protection?” asks Nicole Horseherder in a press release. A resident of the Navajo reservation, an activist and educator, as well as a volunteer for To’ Nizhoni Ani, Horseherder told me that “the government is a part owner of the mine . . . using excess revenue to pay itself back” from its initial investment in the 1960s. Although an independent company is running the NGS, Horseherder still sees a conflict of interest.
An environmental impact study of the Navajo Generating Station and the nearby Kayenta mine discounts health impacts, but Gearon disputes its validity, explaining that “they used soil data from continued operations compared to data from two years ago.” Yet the coal plants have been operating since the 1970s, “so there is no baseline data.” In other words, there are no studies comparing the health of the Navajo people before and after the coal plants began operation. Gearon explains that, “Unfortunately, a thorough health study has never been done on Navajo Nation and it is sorely needed.”
An informal survey conducted by To’ Nizhoni Ani ten years ago does provide some information. About 70% of the respondents pointed to “upper respiratory issues, heart issues, development issues within the last 10 years or 20 years,” in themselves or close family members, according to Horseherder. “Every single one, except one or two, said ‘I think it’s that power plant’.”
The struggle to clean up NGS is not the first action by Black Mesa and other groups. They have previously tangled with Peabody Energy over pollution, relocation of local people, and depletion of water resources. In 2005 and 6, their actions helped shut down the Mohave Generating Station and Black Mesa strip mine, which had depleted an aquifer crucial to the Navajo people, among other impacts.
The Black Mesa mine was temporarily re-opened in 2008, but closed permanently in 2010. Promised clean-up of lands devastated by strip mining now seems problematic due to Peabody Energy’s recent bankruptcy, although conditions are still being negotiated. A historical debt to the Navajo people once again might remain unpaid.
Meanwhile other coal operations continue, harming water quality and availability. Indeed, the Kayenta operation uses twice as much water as previously says Horseherder. She points to “changes in water quality and quantity because of coal mining that’s happening here. . . . Every year they use our water increases the price of drilling wells. It’s atrocious that a coal mining company makes billions and billions of dollars each year and most of the community don’t have their own wells or water system.”
Finding themselves on the front lines of the struggle against fossil fuels, the Navajo Nation is working toward solutions, including clean-up, reclaiming depleted aquifers, and bringing solar power to abandoned mines on Navajo lands. Gearon describes these efforts as “experimenting in and advocating for economic development alternatives that are more in line with our cultural teachings and responsibilities.”
Local activist groups are fighting to bring an environmental and social vision to Navajo lands that would combine the best of new technology with tribal traditions. Horseherder points to a 2012 proposition to alter the NGS plant so that “at least one third runs on solar” with the “option of ownership to the Navajo Nation.” While the plan was rejected, it would have “changed the course of the Navajo Nation to true self sufficiency.” Still, in April ground was broken for the first utility-scale solar on Navajo land, while smaller solar installations are also moving forward.
While Native Americans often work with environmental organizations at the frontlines of resistance to climate change, the relationship is not always easy. “We’ve also had many bad experiences with mainstream, white-led environmental organizations that reflect the classic dynamic between environmental and environmental justice organizing,” says Giron. “We’ve found that ‘enviros’ often act paternalistic. They want us to serve as poster children for their campaigns rather than support and empower us to lead and organize for our own solutions.”
Indeed, environmental organizations, in line with mainstream American thinking, have historically prioritized the rights of nature over the rights of indigenous people. Gearon explains, “it was environmental organizations that pushed to set up the Black Mesa coal complex in the first place, offering up Navajo communities so the Grand Canyon would no longer be dammed for energy.”
With an increasing indigenous voice, exemplified by the recent actions at Standing Rock, this dynamic seems to be changing. Native Americans are beginning to get some control over their own destiny, although the process is contentious.
In difficult circumstances, organizations such as Black Mesa continue to advocate for environmental justice. Explains Gearon, “we work to hold Peabody Coal Company, and tribal and federal governments, accountable to the Navajo people.”
Editor’s Note: We attempted to contact the Bureau of Indian Affairs and other government agencies for their response to questions brought up in this article, but we have not heard back. After significant delays, we have decided to run this piece as is. It is a central part of our mission to prioritize the word of local activists on-the-ground.