Native group leading the way to safe, renewable energy
When Native American university students founded the Black Mesa Water Coalition (BMWC) in 2001, they set out to protect the Navajo Aquifer, an important water resource shared by the Navajo and the Hopi reservation — the 2,500 square mile area located inside the Navajo reservation that is home to about 7,000 people.
Within a few years, working together with other groups, BMWC had helped to shut down a coal mine and a coal-based power plant. They also joined with the Sierra Club and others to promote a plan for a renewable energy infrastructure of solar and wind operations to be owned in part by tribal communities. Seva was proud to support the work of BMWC with a small grant in 2006.
|At issue was the Black Mesa Mine in Arizona, operated by Peobody Coal Company. Since 1965, Peobody had pumped more than a billion gallons of pristine water from the Navajo Aquifer each year to make a slurry to carry its coal to the Mohave Generating Station in Nevada. While the company claimed the operation was harmless, a recent report by the Natural Resources Defense Council confirmed what Navajo and Hopi citizens could plainly see — the mine putting their local groundwater supply at risk.|
BMWC's work paid off. Their efforts to educate the community and build resistance to the use of the aquifer were contributing factors in the shutdown of Black Mesa Mine in December 2005. It turned out that the Mohave Generating Station, the mine's only customer, was forced to close after legal action by the Sierra Club and others required the plant to install pollution controls. Faced with the cost of those improvements combined with growing resistance to the use of the water, Southern California Edison, the plant's operator chose to shut it down.
Just Transition: A New Way
With the closing of the Black Mesa Mine, millions of dollars of yearly income to tribal governments and hundreds of local jobs were lost. The big question, as Wahleah Johns, the Field Organizer for BMWC explains, is what happens next?
“All along, our tribal leaders would say ‘Okay — so you guys want to end the use of Navajo Aquifer for the Black Mesa Mine. Well, what is your idea for replacing the lost revenue once it stops?’” Wahleah recalls. “And we realized that as community organizers, we needed to push for something to help get our communities back on their feet. That's what led to the Just Transition Plan."
Together with the Sierra Club and others, BMWC helped launch the Just Transition Coalition. Their vision calls for building a renewable energy infrastructure of solar and wind operations that would be owned in part by tribal communities. "Some of the electricity produced would supply the many Navajo and Hopi communities still without power of their own," Wahleah explains, "and some would be sold on the open market, creating new revenue streams. In the process, we'd create a new sustainable industry that would provide long-term jobs for our people."
Innovative Funding Plan
Funding to implement the plan could come from federal money granted to the Mohave plant's owners now that their operation is no longer producing pollution — credits that could be worth as much as $65 million per year. In an historic decision in 2005, the California Public Utilities Commission granted the Just Transition Coalition's request to place those funds in escrow pending further review.
"That was a huge victory for us," says Wahleah, "though it was complicated because some of our groups don't support the idea of trading pollution credits. But we knew that otherwise, the money was just going to be handed back to the shareholders of the power plant, and we felt a better use of it would be investing in renewable energy to support Native communities."
Looking to the future, Wahleah says, "We still have a long way to go, but we're optimistic. If nothing else, Just Transition means putting our communities at the forefront of the process. We're working from the bottom up, instead of the top down."
You can learn more about Black Mesa Water Coalition and their work to develop renewable energy systems and green jobs at http://www.blackmesawatercoalition.org/.