LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Navajo leaders are scrambling to find a new owner for the West's largest coal-fired power plant, the Navajo Generating Station. For four decades, both the Hopi and Navajo tribes have relied heavily on jobs provided by the coal industry. Unless a new owner for the plant can be found, it's scheduled to shut down at the end of next year. Many of its employees aren't waiting for a new owner, though. From KJZZ's Fronteras Desk in Flagstaff, Laurel Morales reports.
LAUREL MORALES, BYLINE: From the LeChee Chapter House just south of Page, Ariz., three smokestacks from the Navajo Generating Station poke through the horizon like a pitchfork. Behind them, red sandstone mesas tower over the gleaming Lake Powell. Jerry Williams is the president of the LeChee Chapter. And he's worked for the Navajo Generating Station for 38 years. Two weeks ago, he had to make a tough decision, stay with the plant or accept a redeployment down near Phoenix.
JERRY WILLIAMS: I thought that I'd be the last one to turn that switch off and say, hey, we're done. But it didn't turn out that way.
MORALES: Williams chose to take a job at a natural gas facility owned by Salt River Project - or SRP - the utility that operates the Navajo Generating Station.
WILLIAMS: I'm short of retirement. I'm 58 years old. If I was going to retire next year - not being 65, you get penalized for every year that you retire early.
MORALES: William says his wife refuses to go to Phoenix, so he plans to drive 300 miles back to LeChee on the weekends. About a third of the plant's 500 employees have also taken a new job with SRP near Phoenix. And more may follow.
WILLIAMS: Few people I know - they turned their offers down. Couple of them that I know are close to retirement. And some of them are just - they have families. They have kids here in the school system. And some of them have property that they bought here.
MORALES: So they will settle for minimum-wage jobs or live off the land like their ancestors have done. No other job on the Navajo Nation pays as well as the Navajo Generating Station. The revenue, taxes and royalties from coal make up about a third of the Navajo operating budget and most of the Hopi budget.
SEAN TEE: There's no comparison.
MORALES: Sean Tee talked to me in his new apartment near Phoenix. SRP relocated him to a natural gas plant there a few months ago.
TEE: The job that NGS provided was - you could live beyond your means. I was able to provide a pretty good life for my siblings.
MORALES: And Tee still sends money back home. He misses his family and animals in Tuba City.
TEE: You know, I like a rural life where, you know, there's still a dirt road. And there's less noise, less traffic, less people. I had a few roping steers, four horses. We always had sheep. But the sheep didn't last that long because we always eat them (laughter).
MORALES: Tee would like to go back home someday. Jonathan Miller, on the other hand, says he's given up making the Navajo Nation home. Miller still lives in LeChee and works for the plant. He says he sees too much dysfunction on the reservation, not to mention the economic struggles.
JONATHAN MILLER: Boy, if you look at the economic condition on the reservation, the only thing that holds this nation together is the natural resources.
MORALES: Half of the tribe is unemployed.
MILLER: I think a lot of the younger people are willing to move on. But I don't think they have too much of a tie anymore to the land or to, I guess, their grandparents' way of lifestyle. They weren't trained how to do that anymore.
MORALES: So when SRP hands Miller his redeployment offer, he says he will take it and go. For NPR News, I'm Laurel Morales in Flagstaff.
(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN MOULDER'S "JOURNEY TO THE EAST, PART 1")
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