By Mihir Vohra, Research Associate

For over 40 years, the Navajo Generating Station (NGS), located on Navajo nation land near Page, AZ, was the largest coal plant in the American West. The NGS and the coal mine that fed it shut down in 2019, and on December 18th, 2020 its three smokestacks were finally demolished. Air pollution from coal plants is associated with higher risks for asthma, cancer, heart and lung diseases, and neurological dysfunction. The burden of these facilities disproportionately affects poor and minority communities. A 2012 report from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) determining that of the people living within 3 miles of a coal plant, the average per capita income was $18,400 and 39% were people of color.

Navajo and Hopi community members fought for closure of the NGS and issued a statement observing the December 18thdemolition. It notes that NGS provided electricity for many cities in Arizona, Nevada and California, but not the Navajo or Hopi communities, illustrating an egregious reality: not only are there disparities in the toxic burden of energy generation, but there are disparities in who gets to reap the rewards. Those most burdened are least likely to receive benefits. This exploitation isn’t limited to coal, either. During its operation, the plant pumped billions of gallons of water from the Navajo Aquifer to the city of Phoenix. This has left the Native land in a drought and decreased access to running water in Navajo and Hopi communities, endangering health as well as Tribal culture.

Now that the NGS is closed, Navajo and Hopi community members are outlining what is required for community restoration. This includes securing electricity and clean water access for residents as well as job training. A 2012 Department of Energy report estimated that the NGS employed over 800 Native people, and community members want them to be first in line for new clean energy jobs in the area. More broadly, they demand investments in a sustainable economy for the Navajo and Hopi tribes with a just transition to new industries.

Another key feature of community members’ demands is cleanup and land reclamation. The mine and plant closed over a year ago, but the company operating them has done little to clean up these sites even though it is required to return the land to its original state. Groundwater contamination from toxic waste and coal ash is a serious concern, and community members are calling on the incoming Biden administration and Department of the Interior to enforce a full and transparent process to restore the land and ensure residents’ safety.

The Navajo and Hopi people who spent decades in the shadow of the NGS deserve more than just this demolition of its smokestacks, they deserve an investment in their future.

Photo credit: Adrian Herder, Tó Nizhóní Ání.