In the Navajo Nation, decades of activism to protect water sources have combined with changing economic conditions in the fossil fuel industry to result in the closure of several key coal projects. In 2005, Peabody Energy’s Black Mesa Mine was shut down, a project that drew up to 4,400 acre-feet of water per year to feed a slurry coal pipeline to a coal-fired generating station in Nevada. In 2019, the Salt River Project’s Navajo Generating Station and Peabody Energy’s Kayenta Mine, which supplied coal to the power plant, were also closed.

These projects leave behind a complex legacy: They represent both a major loss of jobs yet also an opportunity to build a new, more sustainable economy and rectify long-standing environmental injustices.

The largest coal plant in the West, the Navajo Generating Station, shadowed the rocky desert landscape with its three 775-foot towers. These quietly spewing smoke stacks represented the United States’ largest source of nitrogen oxide air pollution, which is linked to acid rain and toxic particulate matter. Every year, they emitted 8.6 million tons of carbon dioxide.

This coal behemoth was also the bedrock of the Navajo Nation’s economy, employing about 450 Native people while the nearby Kayenta Mine employed another 400. But as renewable prices hit record lows, the Salt River Project, the primary owner and operator of the power plant, struggled to keep up with air compliance standards while operating economically. Then on the morning of December 22, 2020, those towers came down in a billowing cloud of dust. The demolition of the smokestacks at NGS is a solemn event,” said Horseherder in a statement at the time. “It’s a reminder of decades of exploitation subsidized by cheap coal and water from the Navajo and Hopi.”

The question that many communities, especially those who depended on coal projects as a primary employer, face is how to transition to a new economy. Tony Skrelunas, a Navajo expert in economic development who was raised on Black Mesa, sees this moment as an opportunity to move the Navajo Nation away from an economy that exploited Indigenous people.

Read the full article about a just transition for the Navajo Nation at Grist.