Desert Rock Gasps for Breath
The feds motion to yank the permit for a disputed power plant
Sarah Jane White lives in a log house on open rangeland a little ways south of Farmington. The house is small, 48 years old and was inherited by White when her mother died.
She’s lived in the area most of her life, she says, except when she was raising her kids in nearby Shiprock. She's not inclined to give her age. But she's felt connected to the land for all her years. It's flat land. These days, her relatives keep cows, sheep and horses on her property.
Plans have been in motion for years to build a coal-fired power plant in Burnham, N.M., about 15 miles away from White's property [News Feature, " Absolute Power," March 8-14, 2007]. The embattled Desert Rock power plant was a project of the Navajo Nation's government, its Diné Power Authority and Sithe Global, an international power development company. Community organizations and environmental groups mustered their forces to object to the plant, saying it would pollute an area already coping with the effects of two similar operations, the Four Corners Power Plant and the San Juan Generating Station. The Environmental Protection Agency says there is no other region in the Pacific Southwest (California, Arizona, Nevada and Hawaii) that has such a concentration of coal-fired plants.
“My little baby granddaughter almost had her lung collapse two weeks ago. ... That is why I work hard the way I do.”
Sarah Jane White
But the Desert Rock Energy Project was given the go-ahead anyway by the EPA at the end of July.
On Monday, April 27, the EPA filed a motion to pull the permit. Darrin Swartz-Larson, spokesperson for the EPA’s Pacific Southwest Office, says four areas of concern prompted reconsideration: the emission of large particulate matter (like ash or dust), whether the plant would use the best control technology, whether it would be in compliance with the Endangered Species Act, and human and environmental impacts caused by the plant’s construction and operation. If the Environmental Appeals Board agrees to yank the permit—given the green light under the previous administration—it will be sent back to the regional office for further analysis. Swartz-Larson says it’s unclear when the board will make a decision on whether to do so.
For White, the news is good. "I'm not bragging," she says, "but I think I'm the lady that started it, that threw a monkey wrench in their path." The Navajo Nation is divided into chapters of local governments. White belongs to the Sanostee Chapter and was working as a chapter official about five years ago when a land lease for the Desert Rock plant came to her attention. "I said, No. We can't approve this until we know what's really going on. We have power plants, and we need to wait," she says. "From that point on, I started going chapter to chapter, trying to get in their way."
“This isn’t just about energy. This is about sovereignty. This is about saving self.”
Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley, Jr.
White’s asthmatic, and so is her son, she says, as are all of her grandkids. She blames pollution for their respiratory problems. "My little baby granddaughter almost had her lung collapse two weeks ago," she says. "That's not funny. That's really serious. That is why I work hard the way I do. I'm against another power plant."
White says she’s glad lawmakers are exercising their authority to protect human life.
Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley, Jr., one of the project’s biggest cheerleaders, issued a statement of disappointment in the EPA's decision. "This isn’t just about energy," he says in the news release. "This is about sovereignty. This is about saving self. This is about the Navajo Nation regaining its independence by developing the financial wherewithal to take care of its own problems. I have people dying every day because of poverty, alcoholism, drug abuse, domestic violence, gangs, and the U.S. government is not there to adequately fund the direct service programs that cater to these needs."
Desert Rock was expected to rake in more than $50 million annually for the Navajo Nation, he continues, and was the best hope for breaking the cycle of dependency on the federal government.
"Human life is very valuable to be playing around with just for money," counters White. "This is just another means of genocide for the low-income people. Show them a little bit of money, and they sign whatever."
Shirley told EPA administrator Laura Yoshi during a teleconference that the project has been on the books for 25 years and that he hoped the agency wasn't changing the rules midstream. He said the EPA is sending a message that it will hold facilities on Navajo land to higher standards than elsewhere.
Sithe Global estimates the project would have brought in 400 jobs—200 mining jobs and 200 permanent jobs at the plant—in addition to 1,000 construction jobs. Most of that would have gone to Navajo union workers, according to Sithe. Jeff Holmstead is a partner with Bracewell & Giuliani, the law firm that represents Desert Rock. He says the EPA's motion was a surprise. "I've worked on environmental issues for over 20 years, and I've never seen anything like it," he says in a news release. "I've never seen any administration try to change policies and rules retroactively."
Desert Rock’s application was submitted on Feb. 22, 2004, according to the EPA. Holmstead says a decision was supposed to be made within one year. The EPA confirms that the permit is one of the “cleanest,” or most stringent, in the country. "Now the EPA wants the Navajo Nation and its partners to go back and start over again under different rules," Holmstead says.
White says the struggle isn't over yet. "I think it's just the beginning," she says. "It's good. I am happy with the decision. I am. EPA made a good decision—but it's like something's hanging in the air."