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Coal plant on tribal land to close after powering US West

FELICIA FONSECA
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Tribal Coal Losing a Livelihood

This Aug. 20, 2019, image shows train operator Ron Little preparing for one of the last trips to pick up coal from the Kayenta Mine to fuel the Navajo Generating Station near Page, Ariz. The power plant will close before the year ends, upending the lives of hundreds of mostly Native American workers who mined coal, loaded it and played a part in producing electricity that powered the American Southwest. (AP Photo/Felicia Fonseca)

ALONG THE BLACK MESA AND LAKE POWELL RAILROAD, Ariz. (AP) — One of the largest coal-fired power plants in the American West will close before the year ends and others in the region are on track to shut down or reduce their output in the next few years.

Owners of the Navajo Generating Station near the Arizona-Utah border are turning to cheaper power produced by natural gas as they and other coal-fired plants in the U.S. face growing pressure over contributing to climate change.

Those shifts are upending people's livelihoods, including hundreds of mostly Native American workers in northeastern Arizona who mined the coal, loaded it from a roadside silo and helped produce the electricity.

Two tribes each will lose millions of dollars in income, while workers are forced into early retirement. Some employees will stay on to restore the land, while others aren't sure what's next.

Ted Candelaria, a fourth-generation railroader who voted for President Donald Trump in hopes he would be coal's saving grace, said the change is bittersweet.

"I got all emotional, started tearing up. It's kind of sad because I love what I do," Candelaria said.

The power plant was built in the late 1960s on land leased from the Navajo Nation, one of two coal-mining Native American tribes that has the largest land base, spanning parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.

The plant was a compromise to keep more hydroelectric dams from being built through the Grand Canyon and to power a series of canals that deliver water to Arizona's major cities. At the time, the U.S. was facing a natural gas shortage and utilities turned to coal to feed the electric grid.

Now, utilities increasingly are shifting to renewable energy, setting standards to wean themselves from coal, an industry Trump has tried to prop up.

One unit of the Navajo Generating Station shut down in September. Decommissioning the other two is expected to take two years.

Coal reserves are vast beneath land belonging to the Navajo Nation and neighboring Hopi Tribe. The Navajo Generating Station has burned 24,000 tons of coal a day for nearly 50 years, and the Navajo Nation estimates it still has a 100-year supply.

"It's disappointing to us," said Randy Lehn, acting general manager of Peabody Energy's now-closed Kayenta Mine, which served the power plant. "We tried harder than anyone else to try to keep this thing going."

The tribes are hard-pressed to come up with a way to make up for the losses.

The Hopi Tribe is losing $14 million a year in coal revenue, or 82% of its general budget. The tribe plans to cut government services where it can.

Tribal members who gathered coal from the mine to heat their homes or used it for ceremonial fires will have to look elsewhere, a similar concern for thousands of Navajos.

The "religious are finally realizing: 'What are we going to do for heating? How are we going to survive from here on out?'" Hopi Vice Chairman Clark Tenakhongva said.

Economic development is difficult for the Hopi Tribe, which is landlocked by the much-larger Navajo Nation and doesn't get as much tourist traffic.

U.S. Rep. Tom O'Halleran, an Arizona Democrat who represents both tribes, recently introduced legislation that would temporarily help replace lost coal revenue and create training programs for displaced workers.

Navajo President Jonathan Nez said the tribe will lose between $40 million and $50 million annually from coal revenue and lease payments — money being replaced temporarily with interest from a trust fund it developed in 1985 to replenish lost revenue from coal, timber, gas and oil.

The interest is enough to cover the losses each year, but the tribe would have to consider approving that method in budget talks going forward.

Mine and power plant workers with nowhere to go are being encouraged to start their own businesses and bid on tribal projects, Nez said. Tourism, solar plants, a call center and manufacturing facilities could help make up lost revenue, tribal officials said, but no single venture will replace the money coal brought in.

Gerald Clitso, sitting in the control booth of a coal silo above the railway recently, is not convinced he would have as lucrative of a job opportunity elsewhere.

"Our leadership, they just don't have the vision, the foresight to see into the future to see what can sustain our economic conditions here on the Navajo reservation," he said. "With the plant going down and the coal mine going down, we'll end up going back to the days of using Coleman lanterns."

The power plant is not far from popular tourist attractions like Antelope Canyon, Lake Powell and Horseshoe Bend, where the bluish-green water of the Colorado River takes a 270-degree turn.

Lyle Dimbatt, a former mayor who is not Native American, said the region still will benefit from tourism but that the economy will take a hit from losing the power plant and mine.

He still has one kid in school and isn't ready to leave his job as the nighttime train supervisor.

"If I'm honest with you, I'm not happy about it, but can't do nothing about it," Dimbatt said, shrugging. "I'm just glad I'm not walking out of the door with nothing, because some of them are."

Over half the workers at the Kayenta Mine qualified for retirement, said Lehn, the general manager. A few will stay for cleanup work. The others are out of jobs.

Phoenix-based Salt River Project, majority owner and operator of the power plant, offered transfers to employees at sites off the reservation.

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Associated Press writer Susan Montoya Bryan contributed to this report.