Closure of the Navajo Generating Station: An Environmental Double-Edged Sword

By: Francis Espiritu

So far the overall status of the Navajo Generating Station is still in limbo. Currently the generating station supplies a significant percentage of Arizona’s electrical needs, and with the slated closure in 2019, it is expected that the dependency on coal within the state of Arizona will decrease. While the closure may be viewed as a positive result for the environment as a whole, as well as the communities that are immediately impacted by the debilitating effects, the economic impacts the closure will have on the surrounding communities will be substantial.

 

On one hand, the closure of the Navajo Generating Station will begin to reverse the negative health effects that the generating station causes for people living in the nearby town of Page. According to the Clean Air Task Force, if the Navajo Generating Station continues to operate, the emissions alone would contribute to annually causing 12 deaths, 19 heart attacks, and 230 asthma attacks.[1]Furthermore, the continued operation of the Navajo Generating Station would continue to consume water that is already scarce, not only for the Navajo Nation, but for the State of Arizona. So the continued operation of the Navajo Generating Station would only serve to further debilitate the area in which the generating station is located.[2]

 

The current energy that is generated is sold and transported to major cities at a considerably cheaper rate, while at the same time, a significant number of Navajo reservation homes do not have access to power or running water.[3]So to continue its operation would only continue to exploit the residents of Page, AZ and those living within the Navajo reservation.

 

However the problem with closing the Navajo Generating Station is that doing so will cut into the Navajo tribe’s finances, specifically taking away the lease payments and coal royalties that the Navajo tribe would otherwise receive with the continued operation of the Navajo Generating Station.[4]Furthermore, Generating Station employs close to 3,000 people, roughly 700 to operate the Generating Station, and another 2,300 to work positions that go towards operating the overall energy operation.[5]

 

From uranium mining to coal mining and energy generation, the Navajo Nation has been exploited not only for the resources on the reservation, but of the manpower needed to extract these resources. With the closure of the generating station, while it would be positive that the negative environmental impacts could come to a cease, what will also come to a cease would the overall economic activity of the Navajo Nation. Where others reap the benefits, the Navajo Nation has ultimately paid the price of suffering debilitating health effects and having the land they live on to be decimated.

 

Given the likelihood that the Navajo Generating Station will be closed, the need for new economic opportunities and environmental rehabilitation are more than necessary. Once the Navajo Generating station is closed, the site where the generating station is located would need to be cleaned and redeveloped. The environmental remediation associated with the Navajo Generating Station closure would not only bring the effected land close to its untouched state, but can also pave the way for new economic opportunities to not only sustain the members of the Navajo Nation, but can also assist in helping Arizona and the surrounding states in reaching their respective Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS).[6]

 

Environmental remediation “involves the investigation and cleanup of hazardous materials to meet federal or state requirements. It also includes defining site-specific needs for redevelopment.”[7]In this case, the site owners will be responsible for cleanup and making sure that the cleanup itself meets regulatory requirements.[8]In this case, the various Arizona utilities such as Salt River Project (SRP) and Arizona Public Service (APS), and the Bureau of Reclamation would be responsible for the cleanup and essential redevelopment of the area.[9]

 

Because the Federal government has a stake in the Navajo Generating Station, it would only behoove the Bureau of Reclamation to aid in the site cleanup. Once the site is cleaned up, it would be best to only make the Navajo Nation and the groups immediately effected by the generating station’s closure economically whole, by investing or even assisting in the development of renewable energy resources in the area. With SRP and APS as being some of the bigger stakeholders that have an interest in the Navajo Generating Station, it would be best for these utilities to begin planning—if they have not already begun so—to use the land where the generating station is, once it is redeveloped, to be used for solar farming.

 

While it is arguable that a solar farm may not bring as many jobs as the overall coal generating operation required, and that current trends illustrate a decline in solar related jobs, “[s]olar makes up just under 2% of overall U.S. energy generation, yet it employs twice as many workers as the coal industry, almost five times as many as nuclear power, and nearly as many workers as the natural gas industry.”[10]Furthermore, even though there has been a small decline in solar related jobs, the facts show that given that solar only makes up 2% of the country’s energy, there can only be more jobs created as the country’s dependency on solar energy grows. As of 2017, there are 250,271 people working in solar.[11]This number can expect to increase if the Navajo Generating Station is closed and is able to turn into a solar farm; providing jobs for those in the affected area.

 

While the overall plans for the Navajo Generating Station are currently unknown, there is potential for the environment to not only be remediated, but for it to be further developed for renewable energy generation, as well as the chance for providing jobs to those who are most likely to be immediately affected. Furthermore such a development could also aid in providing electricity to those who still do not have it on the Navajo Nation reservation, as well as preserving the water—an already scarce resource in Arizona–that would otherwise go to powering the generating station.

 

 

 

 

[1]James Rainey, Lighting the West, Dividing a Tribe, NBC News (Dec. 18, 2017), https://www.nbcnews.com/specials/navajo-coal.

[2]Id.

[3]Id.

[4]Id.

[5]Id.

[6]Renewable Portfolio Standards are regulations that require states to increase their production and consumption of energy from renewable energy sources (i.e. wind, solar, hydro, etc.).

[7]Plant Decommissioning, Remediation and Redevelopment, Environmental Protection Agency, https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2016-06/documents/4783_plant_decommissioning_remediation_and_redevelopment_508.pdf.

[8]Id.

[9]Rainey,supranote 1.

[10]National Solar Jobs Census, The Solar Foundation, https://www.thesolarfoundation.org/national/.

[11]Id.

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