A (Desert) Rock By Any Other Name

Glancing at the northwestern corner of New Mexico in snapshots, it’s easy to become ensnared in a fantasy of what the Southwest might once have been—a Navajo hogan set against the horizon or framed by a red-faced sandstone cliff, with long stretches of desert broken by two-track roads more akin to horse trails than highways.

But throw in two coal-fired power plants, more than a century of poverty, uranium mines and mills, long stretches of oil and gas fields, and a river that runs less fiercely each year and only then does a realistic picture of the region begin to emerge.

Now, the Desert Rock Energy Company, a subsidiary of Sithe Global Power, and the Navajo Nation’s Diné Power Authority hope to build a 1,500 megawatt coal-fired power plant on a Navajo reservation about 30 miles southwest of Shiprock. 

At the end of October, Elouise Brown held back tears while overlooking the proposed power plant site; drillers were there, testing the water supplies. As president of the Navajo opposition group, Dooda Desert Rock, Brown regularly checks the area and had recently noticed new, larger pipes stacked near the wellhead.

"I was checking to see what was going to happen," she says. "Within a couple of hours, some more people came in [from Layne-Western]. I was sitting on top of the hill with binoculars, but curiosity got the best of me, so I went down there." They would resume drilling again tomorrow, she was told, and they would drill for ten hours.

So two days before Halloween, Brown watched the drillers from a nearby hill. She described the goings on to a friend on her cellphone: "I’m watching the water just sprinkle out into the open," she said. "It’s going to be happening for ten hours and it’s really sad." 

Resistance Camp against proposed coal plantphoto from Elouise Brown

Members of the Navajo opposition have occupied a makeshift resistance camp at the edge of the proposed plant, some 580 acres near Burnham. They’ve invited lawmakers and state officials to visit the site. And almost daily, Brown roams the area with a camera, posting pictures to the group’s website and emailing them to local reporters.

While the tribal government supports Desert Rock as a much-needed economic development project for the tribe, Brown says Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley, Jr. and the tribal council don’t speak for her or the growing numbers of Navajo who have come to stand with her in the fight against the power plant.

"The more I think about it, I’m thinking these guys don’t give a hoot about us, not just us in Burnham, but the Navajo Nation in general," she says. "If they did, they wouldn’t be doing what they’re doing." Of course, she says, the Navajo people would prefer local jobs, "as long as you’re not killing us with pollution."

At the end of July, Governor Bill Richardson (New Mexico) announced he was "concerned" about the plant. According to a press release from his office, Desert Rock as currently proposed would be a step in the wrong direction. Any new coal plants built in New Mexico, Richardson stated, should employ what’s called integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) technology, and only plants that can capture at least 60 percent of carbon emissions will be eligible for state tax breaks. 

The company was disappointed in Richardson‘s remarks, coming, as they did, some four years into the project. Desert Rock Energy Company spokesperson Fred Maisano says the project is still on schedule. Desert Rock will not be an IGCC plant, he said, but a supercritical pulverized coal-type facility. Maisano doesn’t like to hear Desert Rock compared to the area’s two other coal-fired power plants—the Four Corners Power Plant and the San Juan Generating Station. "That’s like comparing a ’75 Gremlin with a 2007 Prius," he says. "It’s way more advanced, way cleaner and way more efficient than a ’75 Gremlin."

And who is going to pay the plant’s $3 billion price tag? "It will come from investors," says Maisano. "We’re hopeful that up to 25 to 49 percent will come from the Navajo Nation, which has the ability to take an equity stake in the project." (Yes, that’s right, the Navajo tribe—with a 44 percent unemployment rate and a median family income of $11,885—is expected to come up with between $750 million and $1.47 billion.)

The plant is expected to release some ten million metric tons of carbon each year. How will the state of New Mexico reconcile that fact with Richardson‘s plans to cut New Mexico‘s carbon emissions by 10.5 million metric tons by 2012? According to a September Albuquerque Journal story by reporter Raam Wong, Desert Rock’s carbon likely won’t count toward the state’s total emissions level "because the electricity is expected to be exported out of state." 

Meanwhile, environmentalists are mounting their own fight against the plant, citing issues of air quality (San Juan County’s air quality is already comparable to urban areas), environmental justice (the area’s poor, Navajo residents already live near refineries, mines, tens of thousands of gas wells, and two coal plants), and carbon emissions (which affect climate change).

Elouise Brownphoto from blackfire.buzznet.com

For his part, activist Steve Cone is worried not only about emissions, but also about dwindling water supplies in the San Juan River. Based on e-mail exchanges he has obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, he’s also concerned that the company has pressured U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials to "compromise their analysis" related to effects that changes in the hydrology and water resources of the river might have on endangered fish and birds.

"The raw arrogance and threatening posture of Sithe Global, LLC in these exchanges constitute a classic case of promoters of private profit projects reviling front-line, public employees charged with safeguarding the environment and upholding the public trust," writes Cone in an e-mail of his own. "The fact that such machinations have become commonplace cannot mitigate for the severe impacts of this intended assault by [Desert Rock Energy Facility] promoters on the natural environment and the practice of good government."

Meanwhile, Elouise Brown will keep checking the site.


Laura Paskus is a writer living in Albuquerque, New Mexico.