Coal plant a divisive issue between Navajo leaders

By Felicia Fonseca
Flagstaff, Arizona (AP) June 2010

Navajo Vice President Ben Shelly said during June that he opposes a planned coal-fired power plant on the reservation, even though his boss is standing by the project.

Shelly has been campaigning for the tribe’s top job on a promise to quash the Desert Rock Energy Project, which has been stalled for years. He said he would lobby the Tribal Council to rescind its approval if he’s elected president.

“We’re losing time, we’re losing revenue, our people are in need,” Shelly said. “I look at this whole thing with coal-fired power plants, (and) it seems like everybody is against it. But it seems like us Navajo people haven’t gotten it yet.”

The $3 billion, 1,500-megawatt power plant has been a source of contention among tribal members, some of whom tout its promises of jobs and much-needed revenue while others decry it as an environmental hazard.

A spokesman for Navajo President Joe Shirley Jr., George Hardeen, said Shirley acknowledges the obstacles, including the withdrawal of a federal air permit and biological assessment. But he said the tribe has not abandoned the project and that Shelly’s statements are jeopardizing any progress being made.

“The book is not closed on Desert Rock quite yet, and for the vice president to be campaigning and making such statements puts whatever hopes we have and the work we need to do in jeopardy,” Hardeen said. “He is sending confusing signals to the decision-makers in Washington, D.C.”

The tribe has partnered with Houston-based Sithe Global Power on the project, but the developers have not resubmitted an application for an air permit.

The U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs wrote to Shirley in April saying it will resubmit an updated review of the biological assessment for the project.

Shelly said he doesn’t see his position against Desert Rock as a sign of disrespect to Shirley, who chose Shelly as a running mate four years ago.

Shelly served on the Tribal Council when lawmakers voted to pursue the development of the power plant and said he once had high hopes for the project. He bid goodbye to the power plant at a campaign rally in Thoreau, N.M., over the weekend and told supporters “we are foolish to believe we can build another coal-fired generating plant when it can’t be done.”

He vowed to instead put his energy into the development of renewable sources, such as wind and solar.

“That’s good for us because we as Navajo people are always talking about Mother Earth and taking care of her,” he said. “And it’s about time we do that.”

Hardeen said Shirley hasn’t given up on the hope of work for Navajos who want to return to the reservation. If the political climate signals that the power plant isn’t possible, he said Shirley certainly is amenable to other options.

“Anything that will produce jobs is what Joe Shirley wants,” he said.