Navajos Divided By Coal-Fired Plants Desert Rock would be one of the cleanest coal-fired power plants in the country. It would also be a huge financial boon to the strapped Navajo Nation. But the region is already home to two old, very dirty coal-fired plants.
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Navajos Divided By Coal-Fired Plants

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Navajos Divided By Coal-Fired Plants

Navajos Divided By Coal-Fired Plants

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is Day to Day. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX COHEN, host:

And I'm Alex Cohen. In a few minutes, who's more powerful than Pokemon? We introduce you to the new comic book craze from Japan, Naruto.

BRAND: But first, today President Obama announced he wants states to be able to set their own tougher rules on auto emissions. And that reverses a key policy from President Bush's term. Another environmental policy the Obama administration is reviewing involves a coal-fired plant on the Navajos Reservation in northern New Mexico. Daniel Kraker of member station KNAU reports.

DANIEL KRAKER: In this corner of New Mexico, the Navajo Reservation is a Mars-like landscape of mazes and giant sandstone slabs jutting out of the red earth. Underneath the ground are huge reserves of coal. This is where the power plant would be built and it's where Eloise Brown(ph), a veteran from the first Iraq war, is leading the fight against it.

Ms. ELOISE BROWN (Veteran): We're trying to preserve our water and clean air quality. All that stuff is going to affect each person that lives on this earth.

KRAKER: Brown's office, so to speak, is a plywood shack 10 miles down a rutted dirt road. Inside she ladles up mutton stew and thick, black coffee. Outside, a bonfire burns near a flagpole snapping in a stiff winter wind. She says the power Desert Rock generates won't benefit the 40 percent of Navajos who live without electricity.

Ms. BROWN: This is going to go to Las Vegas, Nevada, and Phoenix, Arizona. So, maybe they should build it down there or build it in front of Joe Shirley's front yard.

KRAKER: Joe Shirley is president of the Navajo Nation and one of the plant's strongest advocates.

Mr. JOE SHIRLEY (President, Navajo Nation): That means jobs to my people. There will be 500 more of my people that will be able to put food on their table, put shoes on little feet. To me, that's very important.

KRAKER: Desert Rock is expected to generate $50 million annually for the tribe, where about half of all adults are unemployed. Shirley believes it will help his people stand on their own two feet again.

Mr. SHIRLEY: Once upon a time, we were very independent, very fierce, and very proud. A lot of that was taken away. Not all of it. We're trying to get that back. And as a sovereign nation, we like to believe that we take care of our own. We want to be in a position to take care of our own business.

KRAKER: But Shirley blames outside environmental groups for standing in the tribe's path. When the EPA first issued its air permit last summer, a coalition of environmental groups appealed. Mike Eisenfeld is with the San Juan Citizen's Alliance.

Mr. MIKE EISENFELD (Staff Organizer, San Juan Citizen's Alliance): I have compassion for Mr. Shirley's position, but I also think that a lot of times he refers to those of us who live on the border of the nation as foreigners. And you know, we're all in this together. We suffer as well as a community from the existing air quality impacts of what's already here.

KRAKER: What's already here in the Four Corners region is two giant coal plants as well as 35,000 natural gas wells. But Desert Rock will contribute very little to local air pollution, says spokesman Frank Maisano.

Mr. FRANK MAISANO (Spokesman, Desert Rock): It's one of the cleanest coal plants that will ever be built to date. And frankly it's meeting a huge need where there's a vast power vacuum that needs to be filled in the next three or four years to keep the lights on in a region that whether you think that it's slowing down or not, it's going to continue to grow.

KRAKER: And that's the big question - how booming regions like the Southwest are going to meet their growing electricity needs. Maisano says renewables can only get you so far.

Mr. MAISANO: Solar and renewables and wind are going to be a part of the mix. The problem is there's so much demand that you're going to have to have some sort of fossil mix as part of that.

KRAKER: The EPA will have the next say in whether Desert Rock will be part of that mix, and it's not just local air quality that regulators are beginning to focus on. They're also considering rules to limit greenhouse gas emissions from new coal plants, big contributors to global climate change. Since Desert Rock would pump out more than 10 million tons of carbon dioxide every year, it could be an early test case of just how far the Obama administration is willing to go to rein in global warming. For NPR News, I'm Daniel Kraker.

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