Renewing Navajo Nation after the Conclusion of Coal
When President Trump speaks of revitalizing the industrial sectors of America, minds often wander to the Midwest, thinking of factories that pump out fossil fuels or power plants that are fueled by coal. However, just a bit farther west, in Arizona, coal mines remain in heavy operation, with the majority of their employees being members of the Navajo Nation.
Although Navajo Nation appears to be constructed upon scenic deserts of scorching red sand, the ground underneath has historically been rich with natural resources. During the Cold War, Navajo land was mined for uranium, with companies reaping over four million tons to build atomic weapons. That mining has since stopped, but the Navajo people’s exposure to uranium has lead to debilitating health effects which have lingered into modern day. In January 1971, the Navajo Generating Station (NGS) plant came into fruition. Using water from the Colorado River, the coal-based power plant has powered electricity for Arizona, Nevada, and California. While NGS’s effects have included pollution to the water and air, it has also provided coal mining jobs to hundreds of members of the Navajo tribe.
In February 2017, it was decided by the utility owners that NGS would be closed down at the end of 2019. Energy harvested from coal could not compete with the lower prices of natural gas. The effects of the decision are already in way. Miners at Kayenta Coal Mine have been laid off this month, and the expected loss in revenue from NGS’s closure ranges from $20 to $30 million for Navajo Nation. While there have been attempts to satiate workers with retirement benefits and new job opportunities like call centers or solar panel installations, these will not generate enough jobs to suffice those affected. In NGS’s stead lies greater unemployment for the present generation and environmental depletion for future generations.
While the movement towards renewable energy sources is certainly a boon, compared to previous bouts of natural resource exploitation which have left the Navajo land with environmental strains, NGS’s closure feels like another failure by the US government to provide for the Navajo. America has a long history of abuses against the Navajo, among other Native American groups, and though concessions were made, many of these were empty-handed promises. NGS provided jobs and salaries for the Navajo people in a land that already has insufficient infrastructure and inadequate education. As an example, the Bureau of Indian Affairs has neglected to construct roads for Navajo children to ride on buses from their homes to schools nearby. Lack of sustained investment in the Navajo by the federal government questions whether it cares at all about an unemployment rate that is above 50% and a poverty rate around three times greater than that of the United States as a whole. While the focus on job losses in the industrial sector are valid, the source of its emphasis appears to be far more politically-charged and transient than what has been a consistent ignorance of the challenges faced by Navajo Nation.
If the US federal government is to amend its relationship with Navajo Nation, as a recommendation, it can start from the basics. Infrastructure improvements, which will facilitate children receiving education, are worthy investments; human capital is necessary to power further economic growth. The negligence towards the Navajo people, in addition to other American Indian groups, is not merely oversight but reprehensible mistreatment by the federal government, but it’s never too early to start the process of improvements.