For poverty-stricken Navajo Nation, a wrenching choice between development and the environment


Elouise Brown stands at the edge of a rise in the middle of the New Mexico desert, pointing toward a barely distinguishable plot of land in the distance that has become the center of a battle in which her family and the entire Navajo Nation have become bitterly divided.

Brown is the head of Dooda Desert Rock (dooda means “no” in Navajo), an organization she formed to oppose the Desert Rock power plant that has been proposed for the nondescript stretch of earth a few miles away. She stands on the edge of the Dooda Desert Rock Camp, located an hour’s drive southwest of Farmington, N.M. 

The controversy over the plant is hardly new to the Navajo Nation and the broader Four Corners community of which it is part: The coal-fired facility would be the region’s third.

But this time things are different. This time the threat is not posed solely by outsiders who intend to plunder the area’s resources, offering a pittance in royalties for the mess they leave behind. Rather, the developers are members of Brown’s own family and tribe, acting with funds and official authorization from the Navajo Nation.

The company co-developing the project, Dine Power Authority (DPA), is an enterprise of the Navajo Nation. And the company’s general manager, Steven C. Begay, by dint of the complexities of Navajo clan structure, is considered Brown’s grandfather.

“He’s not in his right mind, I don’t think,” Brown said of Begay, noting that she treats him with customary familial respect but doesn’t receive the same treatment in return.

Taking a Stand

It’s the first day of Dooda Desert Rock’s (DDR) second annual four-day protest and Brown has returned from pointing out the construction site. She is now sitting in the camp’s central plywood shack, wearing a black Dooda Desert Rock T-shirt and a camouflage army jacket with her last name embroidered on the sleeve.

“We’re nothing to them, we’re nobody to them,” she says, speaking of DPA and its partner, Sithe Global. “They say we’re out in the middle of nowhere, but we don’t consider it the middle of nowhere.”

The walls of the shack are hung with news clippings and timelines that chronicle DDR’s efforts to kill the Desert Rock project. An illustration posted outside, near the entrance, depicts the plant in stark black, a skull and crossbones painted in red inside a column of noxious CO2 rising into the air.

“We don’t have a choice, we have to do this,” she says forcefully. “There’s nobody else doing this so we have to do it.”

But the involvement of DPA has added a unique wrinkle to the issue, one that has opened fault lines within Brown’s family and the broader Navajo Nation community.

With a 25 percent equity stake, the Navajo Nation Council could potentially generate desperately needed jobs and revenue for its 180,000 people, nearly half of whom are unemployed. Yet for Brown, whose activism has been central in stalling environmental approval for Desert Rock in court, the potential for economic benefits means little when the true costs are accounted for.

“It’s totally insignificant,” she said, in a telephone interview before the protest. “What’s more important, money or health?”

Health and the Environment

A passage from the invitation to the DDR protest makes plain Brown’s feelings about the involvement of the Navajo Nation’s government in the Desert Rock project: “Our Navajo leaders are forsaking Traditional Ways to take corporate money to poison our land, foul our air, and steal our waters. This abuse must STOP!”

By “Traditional Ways,” Brown explains that she means “care for everything and everybody.” She was raised by her parents, she says, to “take care of the whole cosmos.”

From the same vantage point where the Desert Rock site is visible, one can also see smoke billowing from the Four Corners power plant, leaving a brown-black streak along the horizon just above Farmington. And just a few miles east from there, barely beyond sight, is the San Juan power plant.

“The two combined are putting high levels of mercury particulates into the air and into the water, because they’re both using the San Juan River,” says Miles Lessen, a math coach for Navajo Nation schools who has lived in the nearby town of Shiprock for about a year, in an interview at the DDR protest. “So people who live down in Sanostee [a town west of Shiprock], this breaks my heart, they’re drinking the water from both plants that are coming through, so they’re getting a higher dosage than even I’m getting.”

For Brown, the health effects she believes were caused by this pollution catalyzed her efforts to block construction of a third coal-fired plant. 

“I’m not going to pinpoint this certain person with this certain ailment, but there’s a lot of cancer patients,” she says. “If you go to the cancer center in Farmington, there’s a lot of people. I’m not just speaking for the Navajo Nation, I’m speaking for all walks of life, all living species. There’s a lot of kids with asthma, respiratory problems of all sorts. There’s babies that were still-born. These don’t just happen constantly for no reason, there’ve got to be reasons behind it,” Brown continues, identifying chemicals, like mercury, released by the San Juan and Four Corners plants as the cause. 

“That’s how I got involved, I wanted to know ‘what can I do?'” she says.

Yet, when confronted with Brown’s dire claims, Desert Rock’s top officials react with a mixture of puzzlement and frustration.

“From a total impact standpoint, I think it’s going to get better before it gets worse. I don’t even see it getting worse, I just see it getting better,” said Nathan Plagens, vice president of Desert Rock LLC, in a telephone interview.

“We have an agreement with the Navajo Nation that for SO2 [sulfur dioxide], every time we emit, we will mitigate 110 percent by reducing SO2 emissions from another source,” he said in describing the first of a three-tier arrangement in which Desert Rock is contractually bound to reduce emissions not only from its own plant, but also from the two existing coal-fired facilities.

After SO2, Desert Rock has pledged to reduce nitrous oxide and acid rain using similar formulas at the contractually mandated second and third tiers respectively.

As for mercury, the plant wouldn’t use the San Juan River. Instead, its water would come from an aquifer located a mile below the surface of the land. And Desert Rock is classified as a non-discharge plant, meaning none of the water it uses will be re-released into the environment, Plagens said.

“The majority of the water that we’re using is basically for pollution control,” he said, with a hint of irony in his voice. “I don’t know where mercury can get in to come in contact with the water.”

But the real sticking point, from the standpoint of the courts and the Environmental Protection Agency, has been carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. The gas is a major contributor to global warming, yet the EPA is not currently authorized to regulate it, according to Plagens. And a coalition of environmental groups, including DDR, has used the lack of CO2 regulations to appeal the EPA’s permit for the Desert Rock plant in court.

“The Environmental Appeals Board will say whether the EPA has to regulate CO2 permits,” said Plagens. “If they do have to regulate CO2, then a lot of things would be thrown on the table.”

At the DDR protest, Brown stresses the widespread consequences of allowing another coal-fired power plant to be built.

“Where are kids in their future generation going to go when the global warming gets worse? When there’s no more good air quality for them to breathe? What are they supposed to do?” she says.

And she’s not alone in her concern. “Unfortunately, every day, I’m losing my life expectancy. I eat healthy and I take care of myself, but I’m inhaling carcinogenic material,” Lessen says. “People down here, they’re getting it even worse.”

And while Sithe Global and DPA have promised to set aside funds generated by the plant to disassemble the facility and restore the environment after its resources are exhausted, there are currently no such plans for CO2 reduction.

Begay refers to the global warming claims of Brown and her associates as “nebulous.” “There are no rules the EPA can go by,” he said.

“It’s the same old garbage they’re coming up with that’s already been discussed,” he said.

The Promises

In forming DPA, the Navajo Nation set the standard for a broad paradigm shift currently taking place in Native American communities nationwide. Alongside tribes like the Crow and Blackfeet, the Navajo are pursuing a more active role in developing their own energy resources, including renewables like wind and solar in addition to traditional coal, oil and gas.

“The old-school is to lease the land, lease the resources,” said Begay, DPA’s general manager, in a telephone interview.

“We’re doing things under a new approach, with more participation and more equity,” he said.

Projections for the Desert Rock facility indicate that the equity Begay speaks of could translate into as much as $50 million in annual revenue for the Navajo Nation, whose yearly budget is $96 million, according to the 2000 census.

In testimony before the Committee on Indian Affairs on May 1, 2008, Begay emphasized the potential economic impact of the proposed plant.

“This project, which would create thousands of jobs during its four-year construction phase, 200 permanent, family-wage jobs in the power plant and another 200 well paying jobs in the adjacent Navajo mine during its lifespan, is absolutely critical to the economic future of the Navajo Nation, one of the most impoverished areas of the United States, with 50 percent unemployment,” he said, in a transcript of his testimony retrieved from the Department of the Interior’s Web site.

And, while already substantial, the revenues become all the more significant in the face of the potential closure of several plants that use Navajo-owned coal, which Desert Rock Vice President Plagens predicts could cost the Navajo Nation $40 million to $60 million per year in lost royalties.

The looming shortfall underscores the vagaries inherent in royalty schemes that have become a major force behind the push to take on a more active, management role in energy resource development.

“A lot of underhanded tactics have taken place in the past,” said Duane Matt, technology coordinator for the Office of Surface Mining, a division of the Department of the Interior. “I think [Native American tribes] need to have a personal, vested interest in what’s going on.”

In particular, Matt, who provides technology and training to Native American mining enterprises, referred to a recent lawsuit in which a Blackfoot woman sued the U.S. government for $47 billion in unpaid royalties.

Decided on Aug. 7, 2008, for 1 percent – $455 million – of the amount originally sought, the Cobell v. Kempthorne case exposed the flaws of the “old school” land-lease system of which Begay spoke. He said the case is partly responsible for a stipulation in agreements between DPA and Sithe Global requiring that all financial disputes be resolved in Navajo courts rather than in U.S. federal courts.

Royalty graft is likewise part of the checkered legacy left by the San Juan and Four Corners plants that has engendered deep mistrust among Brown and her supporters. But they remain unconvinced that the equity arrangement with Desert Rock will offer a significant improvement over the past.

“There were a lot of things promised that were not fulfilled – jobs, economic growth,” said Brown, adding later that the Navajo people would have to be “stupid to fall for this again.”

Miles Lessen, the math coach, points to inadequacies in the status quo to explain why he is pessimistic about the idea of things changing much under the Desert Rock model. “I think you talk to most people, stay around here for a while, talk to most people over in Sanostee and Shiprock and Gallup and all over and they’ll tell you there’s a lot of money that the tribe gets and most of the people here don’t see any of it,” he says.

Moreover, extravagant promises of economic development have a hollow ring to Brown and her supporters, who question whether the Navajo Nation will ultimately be able to raise the hundreds of millions of dollars necessary to purchase an equity stake in the project.

“If it’s projected as a 3.7-billion-dollar project and it’s not going to be built for another four or five years, I almost guarantee it’s going to be double that,” said Michael Eisenfeld, an environmentalist with the San Juan Citizens Alliance, an organization that opposes the plant.

“Where do they think they’re going to get the money for this?” he asked in a telephone interview.

Moved Yet Unmoved

At the Dooda Desert Rock Camp, Brown talks about being forced from her previous three protest campsites, which were located closer to the Desert Rock construction zone. Members of her own family even attempted to drive her off the current site, summoning grazing officials and Navajo rangers to expel her.

“We can’t trust anybody,” she says. “Everybody’s doing this for greed.”

For Brown and her supporters, who include major environmental groups like the Sierra Club in addition to concerned area residents, opposition to the plant is not a simple choice between economic rewards and environmental preservation. It is a rejection of the premise that money cures all ills and brings nothing but happiness.

“To me, money’s not everything,” Brown says. “Money can buy a lot of things, but when your relative’s going to die from cancer, you’re not going to take that money that you earned from the coal-burning power plant and go buy your relative back.”

Perhaps the most tragic fallacy of all, she says, is the notion that people can no longer live without the comforts of modern technology.

“We’ve done without electricity coming into our house, we’re doing fine,” she says. “We live as good as any of you, anybody out there. We’re living as well as DPA does, or Sithe. And we may be hauling water; I don’t see any faucet in here, do you? They don’t need it either, they’re just lazy.”