Yesterday morning during my commute, I listened to the May 31 edition of Democracy Now (http://www.democracynow.org/index.pl?issue=20050531) and heard an interesting interview with Navajo President Joe Shirley Jr. He made a couple of statements that seemed rather incongruous.
On one hand, he described his focused efforts since his election to pass legislation banning uranium mining on Navajo lands. The justification for this legislation is a legacy of sick Navajos that trace their illnesses to working in uranium mines during the 1940s-1990s. By mid 1990, due in part to very low world prices for uranium, that mining essentially stopped, but there are still approximately 1000 sites on Navajo land where mines have not been fully secured and where tailings lie exposed.
On the other hand, he stated that he supported new coal developments “so that we can continue to have jobs and revenues”.
Here is where I begin getting suspicious of motives. I understand the sacred nature of the earth in the Navajo culture, and I am fully aware of the fact that many of the mines on Navajo land were developed during a uranium rush that led to many mines that failed to take proper safety precautions. In the early days of uranium exploration and development, many operators failed to supply or require breathing devices, did not monitor for internal exposures, and did not take basic mining precautions to avoid collapses.
However, coal mining requires massive quantities of digging into the sacred earth. With Shirley’s support, the Navajo Nation is partnering with Sithe Global LLC to build Desert Rock, a 1500 MWe coal fired power plant on Navajo land. The project includes mines that will scrape and blast an additional 6 MILLION tons per year of coal along with an uncounted quantity of overfill rock to get to that coal.
Not only will the Navajo’s be desecrating the earth, but they will also breathe the plant emissions. Here is what Indian Country (http://www.indiancountry.com/content.cfm?id=1096410965) says about the already existing coal plants in the Four Corners area:
“An EPA report shows that two power plants and their coal mines in San Juan County released 13 million pounds of chemical toxins into the Four Corners’ air in 2000 alone. Those toxins are breathed by Navajo, Jicarilla Apache, Southern Ute and other residents in the Four Corners area of New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona and Utah. “
I know that President Shirley and others have faith in the coal industry’s promise to use “clean coal”, but I am more skeptical. The mining industry has been using that phrase now for at least 90 years – here is the first mention that I have found using that exact wording.
“. . . and as an humble member of the United Mine Workers of America, the largest industrial organization of all time, which has unfalteringly furnished its quota for the trenches and responded to every call of our government and guaranteed to furnish all of the coal necessary to victoriously combat the Hun if given the opportunity, I wish to call the attention of the membership of our organization to still another duty which they owe our government, themselves and our posterity–the absolute necessity of producing CLEAN COAL.
To maintain our position and carry out the pledges of our organization to the fullest extent it is not only necessary to produce all of the coal necessary but it is also our imperative duty to see that all the coal mined and loaded is free of dirt and impurities. Clean coal means greater efficiency, it means a greater output from our munitions factories in a given time and an increased production in every industry that is essential to the winning of the war and a speedier transportation service on our railroads. Clean coal when placed in the bunkers of our ships means their iincreased speed and efficiency. . .”
Frank Keeny, President United Mine Workers, Labor Day, 1918. Quoted from The West Virginia Mine Wars, ed David A. Corbin, Appalachian Editions 1997.
I am sorry that I cannot provide a link to the above quote – it is written on that old fashioned stuff called paper and resides on my library shelf instead of on a server somewhere.
Bottom line – it is pretty easy to ban an industry that is not providing any current jobs or tribal revenue like the uranium industry. However, it is a bit disingenuous to base that ban on health and safety fears when you allow an industry with the track record of the coal industry to dig massive mines and build huge plants with belching smokestacks.
Is it possible that there is some relationship between the money that the coal industry provides to the Navajo Nation (and perhaps its President) and the desire to take a very public stand by loudy announcing a ban on a competitive energy source?