Coal miners and their families rally at the Arizona Capitol on Feb. 6, 2018, to demand the Navajo Generating Station remain open. Nick Oza/azcentral.com
Hundreds of coal miners and their families rallied at the state Capitol on Tuesday to demand the Navajo Generating Station remain open, but the president of the utility company that runs it says it will take the appearance of a “unicorn” to save it.
The coal plant on Navajo land near Page has been in operation since 1974, but utility Salt River Project is preparing to close it in December 2019 if the Navajo Nation does not find a new buyer.
No buyer means no plant, no mine
The plant is owned by SRP, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, Arizona Public Service Co., NV Energy and Tucson Electric Power.
So far there are no publicly identified potential buyers for the coal plant. SRP officials say that without a buyer, they are beginning the shutdown, which will force Kayenta Mine to close as well.
“It’s closing,” SRP President David Rousseau said. “Absent a unicorn energy company dropping in.”
SRP set a deadline of October to identify any potential buyers so that the plant could transition to new ownership by the end of 2019, when SRP and the other utilities want to be out of the plant.
While that date came and went, SRP officials said they would continue to work with any buyer that might come forward.
Rousseau, who spoke to The Arizona Republic in January on the subject, said efforts to keep the plant open are a “distraction” from SRP’s efforts to work with the tribe on new economic opportunities once the plant and mine close.
The power plant and coal mine are major revenue sources for the Navajo and Hopi tribes. They also represent good-paying jobs in a part of the state with little economic opportunity.
Miners: Saving plant would save jobs
The miners and families gathered Tuesday around a bronze Navajo Code Talkers monument near the Capitol. Wearing blue shirts and caps and waving signs that read “Yes to NGS,” supporters flooded the Capitol grounds, raising their voices and advocating for the plant to stay open.
Anthony Curley is a welder at the Kayenta Mine, where he repairs the giant dragline buckets that remove the soil above the coal seams. He traveled from Tuba City with his wife, Raquel, and 14-year-old daughter Gracee to attend the rally.
Gracee held a sign that said, “Keep my daddy home.”
Curley said prior to his hiring at the mine in 2011, his family lived in the Phoenix area and he would travel for weeks at a time to find work.
Getting a job at the mine allowed the family to move back to Tuba City, where Anthony and Raquel grew up, and it allows him to see his children every night.
“It’s nice to have both parents around when you are raising kids,” Curley said. “I really like coming home to that.”
The demonstrators heard from union leaders, state lawmakers and Navajo Nation leaders.
In a passionate speech, Navajo Nation Council Speaker LoRenzo Bates called the proposed shutdown of the plant “premature.” He said he and other advocates will do “everything in their power” to keep it open.
“We all realize that the coal industry has taken a strong hit and it’s difficult for this industry to survive in moving forward,” Bates said.
“However, being down that road more than once, I understand, we understand, you understand the challenges, but it’s greater because there are more things at stake here. There’s your jobs, the revenue, the economy, the water, but it goes beyond that. If NGS does shut down … those jobs are going to be very hard to replace.”
He acknowledged the plant would need to find a buyer for its power. Because the major utilities in the region are the same companies that contend the plant is not economical, it is unlikely any of them would do it.
Power from the plant is used for the Central Arizona Project that brings water to Phoenix and Tucson from the Colorado River, but like the utilities that use the plant, CAP says it can get power elsewhere for a better price.
Government hasn’t offered to help
Some of the speakers Tuesday said that President Donald Trump and Department of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke could help prevent the coal plant’s closure.
But so far, the government has presented no plan to do so.
“We haven’t gotten any indication the government is going to fund that kind of infrastructure investment,” SRP’s Rousseau said.
Rousseau said the utility is working to transition as many workers as possible to other SRP power plants and facilities in Phoenix or other parts of the state. He also said SRP has discussed using the coal from Kayenta Mine at one of its other coal plants in Arizona, but transporting it represents a hurdle.
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