Power Plant Shutdown Looms Over Navajo Nation

May 28, 2019, 6:59 PM | Updated: 7:01 pm

PAGE, Arizona — A huge economic blow is beginning to descend on communities near Lake Powell on the Utah-Arizona border. A giant power plant that’s been a big provider of jobs for nearly a half-century now seems certain to die in the next few months.

The Navajo Generating Station looms over the lower end of Lake Powell, a half-dozen miles south of the Utah state line. It’s one of the biggest coal-fired plants in the nation. But its days are numbered.

“The current lease ends Dec. 22, 2019,” said plant spokesman George Hardeen. “So that is the day that we will cease making electricity.”

When the plant’s owners and operators first announced the shutdown two years ago, officials of the Navajo Nation desperately tried to keep the plant open by negotiating a deal for a new buyer. But all the deal-making seems to have fallen through.

Nine hundred jobs will disappear at the plant and at the coal mine that feeds it. The impending doom of the plant has nothing to do with the so-called “war on coal” supposedly waged by the administration of former President Barack Obama.

“It’s pretty simple,” Hardeen said. “The price of natural gas has fallen below the cost of coal to make electricity. And that’s all because of fracking. It’s cheaper to make electricity with natural gas. There is actually a glut of natural gas in the country right now.”

The planned shutdown of the coal-fired plant is already making a deep economic impact on the Navajo Nation, and it’s certain to get worse. The tribal government relies on the operation for 20 percent of its revenue and the job loss is potentially devastating to a place where unemployment is already around 40 percent.

“You’re talking about 900 of the highest paying jobs that will be lost,” said Paul Begay, who was recently elected to represent the area as a Navajo Nation Council delegate. He predicts significant cutbacks in tribal services.

“We will have to cut a lot of programs,” Begay said. “Health programs, it includes our security programs, even the law enforcement area. All programs will be affected.”

Salt River Project, the utility company that manages the plant, has promised continued employment for workers.

“They’re doing their very best to essentially offer jobs at other locations to every single employee at the Navajo Generating Station,” said Tim Suan, community development director for the nearby town of Page, Arizona.

But hundreds of jobs will also be lost this fall when Peabody Energy is expected to shut down the Kayenta Coal Mine that provides fuel for the power plant.

“The mine will close,” Hardeen said, “and people will have to find other jobs.”

There’s added anxiety in the region because power plant workers who accept other jobs from Salt River Project have to move hundreds of miles to stay employed.

“Customarily, Navajos are very rooted in where they are from, where they live. That means they are very rooted with their family,” Begay said. “They will be separated from family. The breadwinner, the mom and dad, whoever it is, will have to leave their families behind.”

On the other hand, another economic trend is providing some good news in the vicinity of the power plant.

“Luckily,” Suan said, “we are blessed to have a secondary (economic) base of tourism.”

In the last few years, tourism has exploded around the Glen Canyon Dam and the lower part of Lake Powell where the Navajo Nation operates one of the two marinas.

Horseshoe Canyon, with its spectacular views of a major bend in the Colorado River, has become a worldwide attraction just a couple of miles downriver from the dam. A parking area at the trailhead is now so persistently overcrowded that officials this year were forced to set up a shuttle system with remote parking.

Nearly in the shadow of the power plant, tours of a famous slot canyon are often overwhelmed with visitors. On almost any day with good weather, fleets of trucks depart regularly hauling tourists to Upper Antelope Canyon.

A few hundreds yards away, parking lots for Lower Antelope Canyon are often jammed with tourist vehicles. The popular attractions have become a major source of revenue for the Navajo Nation as tourism in the Page area has evolved into a year-round business.

“The latest offhand account is about 4.5 million visitors annually,” Suan said.

The Navajo Nation gets much of the benefit from the tourist boom.

“We’re looking right now at tourism as the way to survive, ” Begay said. But he still predicts a tough time for power plant workers who face the choice of moving or losing their jobs.

“It’s something that is very hurtful to the families that are trying to stick together,” Begay said.

At last count, 280 plant workers had already retired or moved to company jobs elsewhere.

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Power Plant Shutdown Looms Over Navajo Nation