By Dylan Lenzen
Experiencing the environmental injustice associated with the fossil fuel industry is not exclusive to minority and low-income neighborhoods within America’s largest cities. The same toxic living conditions can also be found on America’s remote and impoverished Native American reservations. Here, the health of individuals and communities that inhabit these regions subsidize the development of cheap electricity and water in surrounding cities that disconnected from their suffering.
An example of this remote environmental injustice can be found on the Navajo reservation in the Southwestern U.S. This sprawling reservation is home to the country’s largest Native American tribe, the Navajo Nation, with over 300,000 members.
The story of this region is defined by environmental injustice that stems from the vast coal resources found there and the large corporations working to exploit it. This wealth of coal resources has fostered a dependence on fossil fuel development with roots that go back nearly a century.
The region is currently exploited by two mines, both operated by Peabody Coal Company, the largest private-sector coal company. These mines create over 1,000 of jobs for local residents, but also contribute to high rates of cancer and lung disease in workers and surrounding communities. The coal extracted by these mines is then sent to the Navajo Generating Station, where the coal produces electricity for the surrounding region, much of it being utilized for transporting valuable water resources to Phoenix, Tucson, and other Southwest cities.
While it would be intuitive to think that this incredible amount of coal production and generation of valuable electricity would lead to a strong economy on the Navajo Reservation, but that is clearly not the case. While the mining and power plants provide a number of jobs, the community remains impoverished with a 45 percent unemployment rate and 77,000 people living below the poverty line. Many of the people living in the community cannot even afford access to the important services, such as electricity and running water, that their coal and power plants provide for the major cities that surround the reservation.
This widespread impoverishment is a result of the fact that, despite the health and environmental sacrifices associated with coal mining and coal-fired power plants, the Navajo Nation receives but a small fraction of the profits that Peabody and the Navajo Generating Station produce. The land that is leased to Peabody for mining, and transporting the coal is leased to them for a fraction of its true value. The Navajo Generating Station that burns the coal produced by Peabody is not even owned by the Navajo Nation.
While this is just one of many examples of the environmental, economic, and public health outcomes of fossil fuel generation in America, the results on Native American reservations like the Navajo Nation are particularly acute. Because of the remote nature of these reservations, it is especially easy to overlook the role they play in subsidizing the development of excess for the rest of society.
Examples like the Navajo Nation offer a great source of motivation for a transition of our energy system towards one that does not pollute and destroy the environment and health of minority and low-income communities. Whether these communities reside in some of America’s largest cities, or it’s most remote locales, they deserve better.