The morning after a prayer vigil at Elouise Brown’s desert camp, I was awakened by the shaking of my tent. “Get up,” one of her supporters whispered. “They’re blasting again.” Goat stew bubbled by the campfire as billowy grey clouds rose from a dynamited pit at a nearby surface mine. Trucks roared past the camp, disappearing down a road dividing the desolate landscape. Groggy activists hopped in a pickup and followed. Their report back: Multinational company Sithe Global Power was drilling again to test for water sources deep beneath Navajo land, on a site where they hope to erect a controversial “clean coal” power plant, called Desert Rock.
“Clean coal” sounds promising, but to Brown, a 46-year-old Navajo woman some call “El Gore,” there’s no such thing, especially on the remote stretch of New Mexico land allotted to her family by the Navajo Nation. Two aging coal-fired power plants—the Four Corners Power Plant and the San Juan Generating Station—already operate within a 50-mile radius of her home. Three years ago, discreet drilling for Desert Rock began as well. The Navajo government later announced contracts awarded to Texas powerhouses Sithe and Fluor Corp, arguing that power plants would bring jobs to a reservation where half the population is unemployed. In an area where nearly half the population lives below the poverty level, money is no small discussion.
New Mexico ranks third among the states in coal reserves, a rich resource in energy-hungry America. The state already has 11 active coal-fired generating units, and the Four Corners and San Juan plants alone belch out more than half the state’s annual 57 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions. New Mexico warns children and pregnant women against eating carp and catfish from the nearby San Juan River because of mercury contamination. With no legal means to stop construction (because there’s no private land ownership in Navajoland), Brown has been fighting to educate tribal members about Desert Rock’s potential environmental impacts. “Another plant will not be built here” is a message she repeats like a mantra. A handmade banner signals her camp: “Dooda Desert Rock,” Navajo for “No to Desert Rock.”
But despite her efforts, Brown has met fierce opposition from even her own people. The windows of her solar-powered home have been smashed, and her desert camp has been moved twice—once forcibly by tribal police, once by Brown after her bunker was trashed and her picnic table was lit on fire. New to activism, she’s learned to use the Internet to promote her fight beyond the reservation, and she gives talks on Navajo radio “for the grandmas who are herding sheep and don’t read.” The Navajo are a sovereign nation, but they are still within the United States. If the politics of global warming can’t be solved on the reservation, can an international resolution really be expected?
To get an idea of what Brown fears may lie ahead if Desert Rock is built near her home, I drove 30 miles north to Waterflow to visit one of her allies, Raymond “Squeak” Hunt. Eighteen years ago, Hunt settled a case against the state utility’s San Juan Generating Station, the coal-fired plant he says destroyed his family’s health. His nearby eatery, The Original Sweetmeat, Inc., sells mutton, lamb, and goat meat. It’s also known for traditional foods like a’chii, or bunitas in Spanish—sheep intestines wrapped around sheep fat and fried—served up by Hunt, a gruff 56-year-old with a giant belt buckle and a bitter hatred for coal-fired power plants. “This state of New Mexico, all they do is masturbate in unison,” Hunt says. “Everyone’s been prostituted, the judges, the EPA, the environmentalists, the politicians; anybody they can think of.”
Currently, Hunt blames the San Juan plant for causing the deaths of more than 1,000 of his personal sheep herd after the sheep drank from an arroyo allegedly polluted by plant discharge. Now Hunt is one of Brown’s biggest fans. “Bless her heart. She’s dedicated,” he said. “They damn near killed my family and laughed at me and said, ‘You’re a goddamn idiot.’ To see someone else stand up, it makes you so proud.”
His two-decade battle against one of the largest plants in the West has been publicized in local newspapers and promoted in self-funded billboards showing plant officials gleefully peeing into the San Juan River. Officials claim the plant is “zero discharge”—the same term used by Desert Rock officials to describe their proposed plant. The San Juan plant has been undergoing a $270 million environmental upgrade expected to reduce its mercury emissions by 75 percent. But hundreds of pounds of mercury will still be released into the air, as is also expected with Desert Rock. To supply coal to the new plant, BHP Billiton’s Navajo Coal Company surface mine would be expanded several miles onto Brown’s land allotment. And, instead of being built next to a pond or lake with surface water used to cool the plant, Desert Rock would use water drilled from a 6,000-foot-deep aquifer.
Extreme aquifer depletion has been another direct impact of coal mining, which began in “Diné Bikéyah,” or Navajoland, after the US federal government set up a Navajo tribal government in the 1920s to enable American Oil Companies to secure parcels for drilling. Since then, face-offs of David and Goliath proportions have been the norm here. In the 40s and 50s, the Navajo mined much of the uranium for the nation’s nuclear weapons and power plants. Today the Navajo reservation extends across swaths of New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah. Beneath the desert sands and tabletop mesas lies a rich supply of oil, uranium, natural gas—and 1 billion tons of coal. Small wonder that energy is the most hotly debated commodity on the reservation.
The Navajo utility, Diné Power Authority, went to Sithe with the plant proposal in 2003, and once plans were public it didn’t take long for many in the tribe to be enticed by the promised $50 million a year in taxes, coal royalties, and other payments. The 2,000 temporary and 400 permanent jobs at the plant also hold an allure. “I need a job,” a young Navajo told me after Fluor reps approached him at a Navajo fair in Arizona last fall. He was manning a booth with sparkly crosses and flavored “cigar” paper. “I don’t have nowhere to work the rest of the year.” The president of the Navajo Nation, Joe Shirley Jr., understands such complaints. During his two terms in office, he’s welcomed outsiders eager to excavate the energy-rich Navajo country.
A cordial, slender man with a wide grin, Shirley cruises the West Virginia-sized reservation—the largest in the nation—in one of the tribe’s black Chevrolet Suburbans. He’s unabashed, shrugging off those he deems “naysayers.” “You can’t control greenhouse gases one power plant at a time,” he says. Besides, as a sovereign nation, it’s the Navajo’s right to improve their condition by any means necessary, he argues. “This is a sovereignty thing,” he continues. “We’re on our land and it’s a Navajo Nation initiative.” Even so, Desert Rock has been a hard sell in parts of the 27,000-square-mile reservation, where the history of tribal rule is rooted in federal meddling, and “traditionalists” have pushed for a return to harmony with the terrain. But sustainable solutions have never been backed with the sanctioned fervor of coal here in Navajo country, where the need for jobs is overwhelming. Still, “If grandmother says ‘No,’ we gotta say, ‘No,'” said Nancy Smith, 48, as she peddled used PlayStation games, toys, and pots on the hood of her Dodge in a parking lot market in the tribal capital of Window Rock, Arizona.
Like nearly 40 percent of Navajo, Brown lives without electricity or running water. The 1,500-megawatts of electricity from the Desert Rock plant is being promised to Las Vegas and Phoenix, but a power line proposal is being promoted as a means to provide electricity to one-third of all houses on the reservation. That wouldn’t be an equitable exchange given the destruction the power plant would cause, says Brown. Last year, the Environmental Integrity Project ranked the Four Corners plant as the worst emitter of nitrogen oxides of the nation’s 376 largest plants. “Chemicals coming off these plants cause cancer, which a lot of our people already have,” Brown says. “You can’t be in your right mind as a leader to say this is okay.” Brown’s pleas have taken the shape of letters to newspapers, testimonies before the state legislature, and petitions circulating among the 250,000 Navajo tribal members. Elders who can’t read or write stamp thumbprints as signatures.
Over the past three years, support for Brown’s fight has been growing beyond San Juan County. She’s had some success: Gov. Bill Richardson has met with her and slammed Desert Rock publicly, saying it would “exacerbate existing environment problems, and negatively impact scarce surface and groundwater resources.” And when the Environmental Protection Agency in late July issued an air quality permit for the plant, Richardson and New Mexico Attorney General Gary King said they would file an appeal with the US Environmental Appeals Board. “October ozone levels have now pushed the region in which Desert Rock would be built into nonattainment status of acceptable federal ozone levels,” King said in a November statement. New Mexico Environment Department Secretary Ron Curry has said publicly that the EPA failed to require appropriate analyses before issuing the air quality permit. “The Four Corners area is already burdened with the high levels of mercury contamination and smog, and this facility will only worsen those problems,” Curry said in a statement this year. New Mexico has neglected to grant the plant an $85 million tax break, and currently, construction plans appear stalled. But tribal bureaucratic support is hard to win when a majority of tribal council members voted in favor of Desert Rock.
Brown is now using Facebook to raise money and recruit people outside the reservation to her cause. So far, almost 300 people have joined; donations hover near $100. She’s hopeful. Of the 151 coal-fired plants proposed for the US—in Florida, Kansas, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Texas, and Wyoming—about 60 were dropped or put on hold last year alone, many of them because of opposition from state governments. Many others are tied up in court challenges. Soon, Brown reasons, she will have mustered enough support to stop Desert Rock for good. “The overall picture from my point of view is we’ve killed the plant. We just need to hear it from these idiots.” In November, Brown held the second annual Shundiin’s Mission Spiritual Gathering at the Dooda Desert Rock camp. Her emails about the event were signed with a quotation from the Hunkpapa Lakota Sioux holy man Sitting Bull, who was killed by reservation police during an attempt to arrest him for supporting the Ghost Dance. It reads, “For us, warriors are not what you think of as warriors. The warrior is not someone who fights, because no one has the right to take another’s life. The warrior, for us, is one who sacrifices himself for the good of others. His task is to take care of the elderly, the defenseless, those who can not provide for themselves, and above all, the children, the future of humanity.”