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Navajo Nation president wants leeway in federal rules on coal-fired plants

Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly told the Senate Indian Affairs Committee on Thursday that environmental restrictions and lack of broadband access hinder job growth in his nation, the largest tribal community in the U.S., covering parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. (Cronkite News Service photo by Joshua Armstrong)

WASHINGTON – Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly told a Senate committee Thursday that the Environmental Protection Agency “ignores reality” by insisting on the most-advanced pollution control technology to update coal-fired power plants.

Shelly insists that the coal-fired plants – two on the Navajo reservation and one nearby – can meet EPA regulations with far less-expensive upgrades than regulators are demanding.

Shelly’s push for a looser federal leash on energy plants in Arizona and New Mexico came during testimony to the Senate Indian Affairs Committee in which he also touted a stimulus-funded broadband network and noted conflicts in creating a Navajo-run wireless communications service.

The Navajo-EPA conflict is over new selective catalytic reduction controls – which reduce nitrous oxide emissions.

In an August final rule on the San Juan Generating Station in New Mexico, the EPA determined that the station’s four generators need “the best pollution-control technology available,” an agency news release said.

The best available technology could cost as much as $750 million, according to the tribe. Shelly, who noted at the hearing that the Navajo Nation has its own competent environmental agency, said tribal officials believe the job can be done for one-tenth that amount.

But a Sierra Club member who works frequently on the Navajo reservation said the ultimate solution should be a measured move away from coal – while following EPA clean-air guidelines along the way.

“The best way to do that while having clean air is working on a transition plan” for reducing reliance on coal while still meeting EPA requirements, said Andy Bessler, who runs a tribal partnership environmental program out of Flagstaff.

The EPA said its standards will improve views at 16 public parks, including Grand Canyon National Park and Mesa Verde, and improve air quality in Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah.

But the Navajo Nation government said the extra expense of the EPA plan would cost tribal jobs. Though the San Juan plant is not on Navajo land, the plant and nearby coal mine employ more than 800 Native Americans, the tribal administration estimated in a news release.

“In finalizing its own plan, EPA mistakenly asserted that its more expensive approach would not adversely affect the Navajo Nation – a finding that ignores reality,” Shelly said in his prepared testimony.

Because the tribe has an unemployment rate above 50 percent, a single Navajo job supports more people than a typical job where unemployment is nearer to the national average of 9 percent, Navajo Nation press secretary Erny Zah said.

But Bessler believes a better long-term jobs plan is to invest in “green” industries because coal production is finite and its mining has a negative effect on the reservation’s water table.

“Coal provides jobs right now, but what happens when the water runs out?” he said. “And what happens when the coal runs out?”

The EPA is also considering new selective catalytic reduction equipment for two coal-fired plants on the Navajo reservation, including one in Arizona.

Both Bessler and Shelly said they want balance in approaching the issue.

“He’s not saying either-or and neither are we,” Bessler said. “We’re not saying shut the plant down…. There needs to be a transition.”

Shelly is among many tribal leaders in Washington this week for meetings with federal agencies and congressmen. The weeklong effort culminates with a White House-sponsored meeting Friday with a speech by President Barack Obama.

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