Rachel's Democracy & Health News #889, January 11, 2007


[Rachel's introduction: Navajo grandmothers and youth are camped out in the wintry desert near Burnham, New Mexico, to protest construction of a 1500-megawatt coal-fired power plant. They need food and firewood to continue their vigil. "We have to make a stand," says Lori Goodman, speaking for the group.]

By Peter Montague

It has been snowing in the Four Corners region of the Navajo Nation, near Burnham, New Mexico, where Navajo grandmothers and youth are camped out in the desert, protesting a proposed 1500-megawatt coal- burning power plant. (See photos here and listen here.) The plant would be built by Sithe Global Power of Houston, Tex., and co-owned by the Dine' Power Authority, a Navajo tribal enterprise. In the Navajo language, dine' means roughly "the people."

This would be the third coal-fired power plant built on Navajo land, and the first co-owned by the Navajos themselves. But not all Navajos want to own a plant that powers air conditioners in Arizona and southern California by burning 5.5 million tons of Navajo coal each year. "They get the electricity and we get the pollution," said one protester.

In the desert near Burnham, the Dooda [meaning, "No"] Desert Rock Vigil has continued since December 12 when Elouise Brown first discovered strangers drilling a water well on Navajo land. In a video available on youtube, Ms. Brown explains how it all started. She confronted the drillers, telling them they could not continue onto Navajo land. "We live here and I'm just not going to let you go through," she said. The drillers broke past her and she chased them in her car, caught up with them, and blocked their way with her vehicle.

From there, the protest grew. Ms. Brown got her family involved and they decided to camp out on the land. "We're not moving. That's the bottom line. We're going to stay put. We're not leaving the area until they tell us, 'We decided not to build,'" said Ms. Brown, who is a member of Dine' CARE -- Dine' Citizens Against Ruining our Environment.

"Spending Christmas huddled around a campfire and protecting our land is not something that we resisters had originally planned," says Ms. Brown. "Most of us expected large family dinners, Christmas tunes, and gift exchanges," she said. "We are being watched by the police 24 hours/day and every time a vehicle comes by, they charge over and scare the elders and medicine people visiting the Resisters' Vigil," Ms. Brown explained on an internet blog set up to keep the world informed about the protest vigil.

"Feeling the cold wind against our faces at this Dooda Desert Rock Vigil is not something that we regret," Ms. Brown wrote. "It is a time for us to continue standing up for what is right. We are reconnecting with our ancestors through prayer and we are learning, re-learning about our traditional, cultural, and spiritual roots."

After the Dooda Desert Rock Vigil group formed in mid-December, the press began taking notice of the desert encampment, and pressure mounted on Navajo authorities. On December 18, Navajo president Joe Shirley visited the encampment to explain why burning another 5 or 6 million more tons of coal per year was a good thing. The power plant would be clean, he said, and it would create 400 permament jobs.

But "clean" is a relative term. Coal plants produce major amounts of pollution, even when "strict" regulations require the use of modern pollution controls. The two coal-burning plants already operating on Navajo land tell the story.[1]

The Four Corners power plant, rated at 2040 megawatts, sits on Navajo land in Fruitland, N.M., 25 miles west of Farmington. It is licensed to emit 157 million pounds of sulfur dioxide per year, 122 million pounds of nitrogen oxides (NOx), and 8 million pounds of soot per year. Plus it emits 2000 pounds of mercury.

Fifteen miles northwest of Farmington -- just outside Navajo territory -- we have the 1800-megawatt San Juan Generating Station in Waterflow, New Mexico. It burns an estimated 6.3 million tons of coal each year, releasing more than 100 million pounds of sulfur dioxide (SO2), more than 100 million pounds of nitrogen oxides (NOx), roughly 6 million pounds of soot, and at least 1000 pounds of mercury.

Just 185 miles to the west lies an even larger coal plant on Navajo land, the 2400-megawatt Navajo Generating Station in Page, Arizona, which burns 8.5 million tons of coal each year, emitting 185 million pounds of sulfur oxides, 143 million pounds of nitrogen oxides, 9 million pounds of soot, and 2400 pounds of mercury.

In 2000, U.S. EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) estimated that existing coal plants produce pollution equivalent to 3.5 million automobiles.[2]

The Four Corners area is also dotted with 18,000 active oil and gas wells, which contribute large quantities of volatile organics and nitrogen oxides to the local air. The volatile organics combine with the nitrogen oxides to created ground-level ozone. Add tons of soot, and you've got a deadly combination.

Dr. Marcus Higi of Cortez, Colorado testified recently that he has never seen worse asthma than he encountered on the Navajo reservation where he worked as a physican for four years.[3] "I've seen the worst asthma cases out here near the power plants," he said. "A kid would come in, barely breathing. They're basically on the verge of death." He had to fly five children to hospitals to save their lives, he said. The price for power is health, he said.

In July U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued an air permit to Sithe Global for the Desert Rock plant. In October EPA held two public hearings on the permit it had already issued. At the hearing in Durango, Colorado, Erich Fowler, who lives near Kline, Colo., about 30 miles from Farmington, testified that a yellow haze "as bright as daffodils" blocks his view of Farmington. When clean air mixes with it, "the sky begins to look like it's filled with scrambled eggs," he said.[4]

During the hearing, residents of the area expressed doubts about EPA's ability or intention to curb the pollution from the Desert Rock plant. Colleen McKaughan, assistant director of EPA's Region 9 air division assured everyone that EPA would be aggressive and vigilant.

Even the Farmington (N.M.) Daily Times -- whose editorial staff never met a coal-burning power plant they didn't love -- reported that, "Scientists at the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) say the [Desert Rock] plant could emit enough pollutants to risk the public's health despite using some of the best pollution control technology available. They worry additional emissions could raise ozone levels to a breaking point."[3]

EPA's Colleen McKaughan said EPA did not take ozone into consideration when issuing the Desert Rock air permit in July because "it wasn't required," she told the Daily Times.[3]

At the public hearings, testimony revealed that EPA had issued the air permit based on a mathematical model of air quality, but the model did not factor in emissions from the 18,000 active oil and gas wells in the area. Furthermore, the model was based on air measurements taken at only two locations -- one in Farmington and one in Rio Rancho near Albuquerque, 150 miles from the Four Corners area.

According to the Denver Post, the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) estimates that emissions from gas development in the area already have exceeded standards for nitrogen oxides. And the BLM has proposed allowing another 10,000 wells over the next few decades.

"It looks like we need to go back and look again at nitrogen oxides and ozone concentrations," the EPA's Colleen McKaughan said.[2]

Meanwhile, the project is rolling forward. Everyone knows that carbon dioxide and mercury are likely to be regulated more strictly in the next few years, so dirty, old-style power plants are scrambling to get their construction permits now, before the regulations require them to modernize.

To increase its profits from Desert Rock, Sithe Global Power has cut a deal with the Navajo Nation reducing Sithe's taxes by 67%, and Sithe is now negotiating with the San Juan County, N.M. for a similar reduction.[5] The county tax assessor has expressed concern that there won't be enough money to pay for the needed infrastructure -- specifically mentioning the need for additional roads, schools, and jails.

Proponents say construction of the power plant would create 1000 temporary jobs for four years. Many of those jobs would be taken by transients moving to the area, some with families. Local schools already lack sufficient teachers, partly because teachers are reluctant to move to an area that is so polluted. The proposed solution is video conferencing -- piping the picture of a teacher from one school to another.[6]

Another part of the infrastructure that would be stressed by Desert Rock is health care. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights has reported that "current federal funding levels are insufficient to operate an adequate health-care system for native Americans." Two members of the Dooda Desert Rock Vigil -- Dailan J. Long and Sarah Jane White -- recently asked, "How are we supposed to deal with the health effects of Desert Rock if there are already severe deficiencies in our health- care system?... Subjecting us to further pollution while there are severe shortages in our health care is environmental injustice in its purest form," they wrote.[7]

A court has ruled that the Dooda Desert Rock Vigil has no right to block access to the land near Burnham, or even to be consulted about what's going to happen.

Through an interpreter, Alice Gilmore explains in Navajo that has lived at the site since birth and said her father lived there before her. She holds a grazing permit to the land that dates back at least as far as the 1960s. Her family continues to keep sheep and cattle there and has no intention of leaving, she told a reporter for the Farmington (N.M.) Daily Times.

"These people are just fed up with how they've been ignored for the past two and three years," said Lori Goodman, one of the founders of Dine' CARE. "That's what we're reduced to. We have to make a stand."

The Dooda Desert Rock Vigil group has issued the following statement, asking for various kinds of help:

** Money: Resisters need money for gas and food, and also for bail money if necessary. Please send donations to local resident and supporter:

Elouise Brown 1015 Glade Lane 34 Farmington, NM 87401

Ms. Brown can also be reached at thebrownmachine@hotmail.com

** Media attention: the more media and observers are present the less likely Desert Rock is to run people over or harass them. Contact the media, tell them what is going on. Contact Navajo Authorities, tell them you are extremely concerned. Be a legal observer. Spread this Alert!

Media Contact: Lori Goodman, cell #: (970) 759-1908, e-mail address: kiyaani@frontier.net

** Contact the Authorities! Tell them you have heard about Desert Rock's harassment of Navajo elders and youth. Tell them you are extremely concerned! If enough people contact these offices they will know that the world is watching.

Shiprock Police Department phone: (505) 368-1350 fax: (505) 368-1293

Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley's Office P.O. Box 9000 Window Rock, Arizona, 86515 phone #: (928) 871-6352

George Hardeen, Navajo Nation Communications Director, Office of the President; Office #: 928-871-7000 Cell #: 928-380-7688 e-mail: georgehardeen@opvp.org

Bureau of Indian Affairs (Gallup Office); they are conducting the Environmental Impact Statement. Harrilene Yazzi, NEPA Coordinator Bureau of Indian Affairs, Navajo Regional Office P.0. Box 1060 Gallup, New Mexico 87305 Phone: 505-863-8314 Fax: 505-863-8324

Other soucres of information about the vigil include these:

Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN)

The Sage Council

Indigenous Action Media


[1] The coal in the Four Corners area is sub-bituminous, with a heat value of about 11,000 btus [British thermal units] per pound. Based on the latest pollution-control regulations covering the Four Corners Power Plant and the Navajo Generating Station, we can calculate that each megawatt-year of power requires burning 3540 tons of coal, and results in the emission of 77,000 pounds (lb.) of sulfur dioxide (SO2), 60,000 lb. of nitrogen oxides (NOx), 3,900 lb. of soot, and 1 pound of mercury, and consumes 14 acre-feet of water. An acre-foot is enough water to cover an acre of land with water one foot deep. For a 1500 megawatt plant, multiply each of these number by 1500 to get annual emissions; for a 2000 megawatt plant, multiply each of these numbers by 2000, and so on.

These figures do not include the extremely large tonnages of toxic coal ash that are produced each year, which are typically buried in the ground. The ash contains polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), dioxins, and toxic metals.

[2] Electa Draper, "Power plant project's future hazy," Denver Post October 5, 2006, pg. B5.

[3] Lisa Meerts, "Doctor Shares Concerns About Adding Another Power Plant," Farmington (N.M.) Daily Times October 13, 2006,

[4] Lisa Meerts, "Colorado residents voice concerns about Desert Rock," Farmington (N.M.) Daily Times October 3, 2006.

[5] Cory Frolick, "Desert Rock needs an alternate tax structure," Farmington (N.M.) Daily Times August 5, 2006.

[6] Lisa Meerts, "Desert Rock would bring jobs, students to area," Farmington (N.M.) Daily Times Nov. 18, 2006.

[7] Dailan J. Long and Sarah Jane White, "Op-Ed: Burnham Residents Barely Breathing, Still Fighting," The New Mexican (Santa Fe, N.M.), Nov. 5, 2006, pg. F3.