Dec. 22, 2006 – As energy corporations closed in on Navajo territory, a cluster of elderly women and other locals rushed to greet them â€“ planting themselves in defiance on the ground they hold as sacred.
The Navajo elders, joined by native-rights activists and other supporters, formed a blockade last week in Burnham, New Mexico at the site of the Desert Rock Energy Project, a proposed coal-fired power plant. The self-described "resisters" say that in a land already ravaged by fossil-fuel industries, another power plant will make their environment dirtier and their communities more powerless against industrial interests.
"We have to have respect for the Earth; we have to have respect for every living thingâ€¦. Our people know that and understand that," said Ann Frazier with DinÃ© Citizens Against Ruining our Environment (CARE). "DinÃ©" is the traditional word Navajo use to describe their people.
Frazier continued, "So for these big companies to come in and do this, and our tribal leaders allowing them to do that, is against the belief of the people."
The blockade emerged last Tuesday after local residents spotted construction workers moving onto the site with drilling equipment. Since the project has not received final approval from the US Bureau of Indian Affairs, the resisters set up camp and demanded to see documents authorizing the work.
The direct action has stirred some response from Navajo Nation officials. Navajo Vice President Frank Dayish Jr. visited the encampment last week, followed by President Joe Shirley on Monday. Also on Monday, the projectâ€™s corporate sponsors, a tribal utility enterprise and a multinational firm, turned over the requested certificates.
â€œIt doesnâ€™t make sense that we get the pollution, and they get the power.â€ -- Dailan Long, Burnham activist
The documents, reviewed by The NewStandard, show that the Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency has formally approved limited work at the site. The permit allows drilling to gather data for a forthcoming environmental-impact analysis, which the protesters themselves have demanded. That analysis is required for final federal approval of the site.
The diplomacy ended on Tuesday, when the project developers filed a motion in a Navajo Nation District court for an order to force the protesters off the site.
The protesters have relocated to a different part of the project area under pressure from local authorities, but they have pledged to stay put until authorities heed their concerns.
Dailan Long of Burnham, one of several reservation communities surrounding the project site, told TNS that the blockade is a direct appeal for accountability. Although activists have protested the project since public meetings were first held in 2004, he said tribal officials have pushed their Desert Rock plans forward without considering the health and environmental concerns raised by community groups.
"The blockade is what we have to go with, because weâ€™ve been left out in the dark," said Long, who has organized local youth and helped coordinate the blockade. "Theyâ€™re writing their policies and going through the entire process and leaving us out of it."
Environmentalists say Desert Rock would intensify the pollution that already blankets region.
Desert Rock is a joint venture between the DinÃ© Power Authority, a development organization launched by the Navajo government, and Houston-based Sithe Global Power.
The proposed plant, tucked in the San Juan Basin of the "Four Corners" region â€“ where Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico meet â€“ would have a generating capacity of 1,500 megawatts. The project is designed to funnel power throughout the Southwest, especially to growing cities like Las Vegas. Touting its pollution-control technology, proponents have billed Desert Rock as a model facility.
Still, Desert Rock has sparked tension within the Navajo Nation over the public cost of energy production. Native activists say the facility would desecrate sacred sites while contaminating the air and undermining public health. Community members also fear the plant would eat into their own infrastructure by sucking up to 1.5 billion gallons each year from the local groundwater supply to process the coal.
For generations, the Navajo have seen their lands riddled with oil and gas wells, illegal waste dumps and uranium-mining pollution. Fueling local resentment is the contrast between the tribeâ€™s lucrative resources and the poverty of its communities.
Long said that in Burnham, some native families living on top of the areaâ€™s vast energy stores still lack electricity and running water.
"Why do we have to give all of that to a power plant?" he said. "It doesnâ€™t make sense that we get the pollution, and they get the power."
Native activists see tribal officials as increasingly aligned with corporate interests.
Yet with poverty consuming about 37 percent of the Navajo population, those deep economic needs also make energy projects alluring for tribal leaders. President Shirley has hailed the project as a boon for the reservationâ€™s ailing economy. Navajo officials and the corporations backing the plant say the 600-acre facility would yield an estimated $50 million annually through taxes and related revenues and about 400 permanent jobs for the tribe.
In 2004, DinÃ© CARE helped mobilize hundreds of residents to petition for comprehensive environmental and public-health impact studies â€“ demands that activists continue to press. But the Navajo Council approved a 50-year lease for the project in May, and the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a preliminary air-emissions permit in July.
Local and national environmental organizations argue that the EPAâ€™s proposed permit fails to adequately regulate key pollutants, and that Desert Rock would intensify the pollution that already blankets region. Every year, according to EPA data, Desert Rock would churn out approximately 3,000 tons each of smog-forming sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, and 5,000 tons of the global-warming contributor carbon monoxide.
The EPAâ€™s assessment did not consider carbon-dioxide emissions, which also contribute to climate change but are not regulated as a major pollutant. An analysis by the San Juan Citizensâ€™ Alliance, Sierra Club and other groups projects that the facility would generate nearly 14 million tons of carbon dioxide each year as well, making it one of the worst-emitting plants in the Western states.
Environmentalists predict Desert Rockâ€™s mercury and gas emissions will compound the dirty air from other plants in the area, including the neighboring San Juan Generating Station and the Four Corners Power Plant, which rank among the heaviest polluters in the United States, according to an analysis of recent emissions data from the Environmental Integrity Project.
Meanwhile, expansion plans â€“ and more protests by native activists â€“ are underway for a coal-mining operation on Navajo and Hopi land in Black Mesa, Arizona, run by Peabody Western Coal.
But Navajo officials are standing behind Desert Rock. George Hardeen, spokesperson for the Navajo Presidentâ€™s Office, said that although President Shirley had agreed to meet with the protesters, they had planted themselves "right on the spot where the workmen need to do the work," and that the tribal government would allow the developers to "figure out what they can do to have those people move off."
"[The President] is not trying to stifle dissent," Hardeen said. "He just wants to make sure that the project moves forward, because this is the will of the council, and this is the will of the people."
Opponents say the will of the people was never a part of the plan â€“ a sign that tribal officials are increasingly aligned with corporate interests and Washington. "Our government has taken up that same attitude that we say that the federal government has," Frazier said. "So today, we have to not only resist the federal government, but we have to resist our tribal government, too, when theyâ€¦ try to maneuver us to live with all these developments on our land."
Lori Goodman, a DinÃ© CARE activist who works with other tribes to develop indigenous "environmental justice" campaigns, said that while the blockade might have captured public attention, only sustained grassroots pressure would force tribal leaders to shift priorities and look at cleaner alternatives to fossil fuels, like wind and solar power.
"People are connecting. Thereâ€™s a need to do a DinÃ© energy policy that speaks to the needs of the people," she said. "Weâ€™re stockholders of our natural resources, and we have a say-so."