ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
The biggest coal-fired power plant in the western U.S. is shutting down in 2019. It's located on the Navajo Nation, and the closure is coming 25 years earlier than the tribe expected. While environmentalists are celebrating, hundreds of Navajo people who rely on jobs there are devastated. And the Navajo Nation is hoping President Trump can help. Laurel Morales of member station KJZZ reports from Flagstaff.
LAUREL MORALES, BYLINE: When Marlene Fowler wakes up in the northern Arizona town of Kaibeto, she can see a yellow-green haze on the horizon. But Fowler's not worried about the pollution. It's her husband's job at the Navajo Generating Station that has her on edge.
MARLENE FOWLER: Even though they say the pollution is all this and that, it's been there years, you know?
MORALES: Fowler gets $10 an hour as a cook at the senior center.
M. FOWLER: I'm doing biscuits and gravy for the community seniors.
MORALES: But the family relies on her husband's paycheck. He's a part-time mechanic for the power plant. Fowler says without the plant work, he'll have to travel to various odd jobs.
M. FOWLER: It's going to cost a lot of gas and mileage on the vehicles. They have to pay their motels and meals and lodging and stuff.
MORALES: Waiting for the biscuits and gravy outside the kitchen are Lorinda Bennett and her husband, who's retired from the plant.
LORINDA BENNETT: I have a daughter that's working there and two son-in-laws working there. They're close by. We see them almost every day.
MORALES: Bennett is afraid the plant shutdown will take her children and grandchildren far from her.
BENNETT: Our kids are going to move away and our grandkids. And that's what they're planning on. They're already looking for another job.
MORALES: The Navajo Nation has relied on the coal industry for the last four decades. The energy companies have provided hundreds of families with some of the best-paying jobs on the reservation. The revenue, taxes and royalties all make up about a third of the tribe's operating budget. The Salt River Project, the plant operator, says natural gas is much cheaper and makes more economic sense. A plant closure means the coal mine that feeds the plant would also likely shut down.
PERCY DEAL: Their benefit has been at our expense.
MORALES: Percy Deal lives near that coal mine.
DEAL: Expense meaning the water, the land, the health of the people.
MORALES: Thousands of tons of nitrogen oxide the plant spews into the atmosphere have caused serious health problems. Deal says the plant shutdown is an opportunity to fix the mistakes of the past and open the door to a cleaner future.
DEAL: Businesses that do not use much water, nor do they pollute and harm the environment.
MORALES: Deal is talking about green jobs, like wind power. To that end, there's a plan to bring together four colleges from the region to build a higher education center near the Navajo Generating Station. That's what Coconino County Supervisor Lena Fowler is working on to give power plant employees a reason to stay.
LENA FOWLER: These are the homeowners. These are the people that come and shop.
MORALES: Fowler started work on an economic impact plan when she thought she had 25 years until the plant's closure. Now, she says, the tribe has just three years to ask the big scary questions.
L. FOWLER: How do we help ourselves? How do we help our children? How do we help our neighbors? How do we as a community come together to help each other, to keep our population whole and families whole?
MORALES: Fowler hopes the answers to those questions are able to do more than simply replace the jobs lost at the power plant. For NPR News, I'm Laurel Morales in Flagstaff.
(SOUNDBITE OF BOMBAY DUB ORCHESTRA SONG, "STRANGE CONSTELLATIONS")
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