The demolition of the largest coal-fired power plant in the Western US brings reflection, hope to the northern Navajo Nation

The move eliminates a major pollution source on the Utah-Arizona border, but 750 jobs, mostly filled by Native American workers, are going away

(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) Spectators gather to witness the demolition of the Navajo Generating Station on December 18, 2020.

Page, Ariz. • A series of deep booms shook the desert around here on Friday morning as hundreds of people gathered to witness the end of an era that has shaped life on the northern Navajo Nation since the 1970s.

Three 775-foot concrete smokestacks toppled in quick succession as part of the controlled demolition, kicking up a cloud of dust that hung in the air for hours and blanketed the town of Page.

The 2.25-gigawatt Navajo Generating Station, which was located six miles south of the Utah state line on Navajo tribal land and majority owned by the Salt River Project, was the largest coal-fired power plant in the Western U.S. by generating capacity before it ceased operations last year. Together with the Peabody-owned Kayenta Mine on Black Mesa, which fed the plant, the plant provided over 750 jobs to mostly Native American workers.

“People are sad about it going down because it used to bring income to families,” said Pedro Whiterock, a member of the Navajo Nation originally from Aneth, Utah, who manages a restaurant in Page and came out to the demolition with his kids. “People used to enjoy watching [the plant] steam up.”

Those emissions had become a fixture of the skyline in the region, including for boaters on nearby Lake Powell in southwest San Juan County, Utah. They had also long been a cause of environmental concern, spewing 14 million tons of greenhouse gases and other pollutants into the atmosphere each year even after scrubbers were added to the stacks in the 1990s.

(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) Pedro Whiterock poses with his son Remington Whiterock before the demolition of the Navajo Generating Station near Page, Ariz., on December 18, 2020.

The coal mines on Black Mesa partially drained the massive Navajo Aquifer, drying up springs and water sources in a region where running water is not available in thousands of homes. Other water sources were contaminated, and Indigenous-led opposition groups had long advocated for the closure of the mines and power plant, including Black Mesa Trust, Diné CARE, Indigenous Action and ToNizhoniAni.

“I’m more of a tree hugger, so I’m kind of glad it’s down,” said Dustin Attakai, an iron worker from the Page area whose father worked at the plant. “It was polluting the air. You could see the haze for miles out.”

Coal from the mines was a leading source of heat for homes in the region, and Attakai said the practice led to lung problems for his grandmother. After the Kayenta Mine closed last year many families reported struggling to find an alternative heating source.

Leaders for the Navajo and Hopi nations, which made $50 million in royalties from the operations, fought to keep the plant open through lawsuits, and the Navajo Nation looked into purchasing the generating station. But in the end, the bid to extend the plant’s life ran up against the falling costs of renewables and cheap natural gas, economic trends that have contributed to the closure 49 coal-fired plants across the West since 2010.

“All these people who watched this smokestack come down, they’re part of its history,” said Calvin Bigman, another local who came out to see the demolition. “They’re not only here to watch the action; they grew up being supported by their fathers and mothers who worked here. They know there’s a lot of history. I’m pretty sure they’re sad and they didn’t want to see this plant go down.”

Calvin’s late father, David Bigman, helped build the plant in the 70s and benefited from a good-paying union job in an otherwise economically depressed area. The younger Bigman worked off and on at the plant for 30 years as an electrician and welder.

“I was hired to tear it down,” Bigman said, “but I didn’t want to be a part of it because I didn’t want to see it go.”

He added that many of his friends had to sell their houses and move to Wyoming or Idaho to work in other coal-fired plants. “It’s going to change Page, which is also a tourist town,” Bigman said. “It’s going to have to rely on tourists now to keep the place alive.”

(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) Calvin Bigman, a former employee of the Navajo Generating Station, in the aftermath of the plant's demolition on December 18, 2020.

But there are industrial alternatives currently being explored. Existing transmission lines and nearby Lake Powell could be used to develop a large-scale renewable energy project, which environmental groups have advocated as part of a “just transition” for the area.

The Los Angeles City Council, which had an ownership stake in the generating station, worked with Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez in February to fund a feasibility study for building solar and wind projects in the northwestern corner of the Navajo Nation.

Nez has been an advocate of renewable energy and a supporter of the tribal-owned and operated 27.3-megawatt solar project near Kayenta, which was completed in 2018, and could serve as a model for a larger project near Page.

In January, Daybreak Energy applied for preliminary federal permits to develop a 2.2-gigawatt pumped hydroelectric storage project on Navajo lands in Utah’s San Juan County. The $3.6 billion project would be capable of generating more than twice as much power as Glen Canyon Dam that forms Lake Powell. Solar and wind energy would be used to pump water into a storage reservoir that could then be run through turbines to provide a source of on-demand power, even when the sun isn’t shining or the wind stops.

Permitting for such a project could take years, however.

Whiterock, Attakai and Bigman all said they support building solar in the area, but wondered how many jobs such a project would create.

A criticism of the Navajo Generating Station, Bigman acknowledged, was that it exported power to Arizona cities, Nevada and California while many Navajo Nation homes still lack electricity. He hopes a solar project would address that issue as well.

Even with the sadness over the closure of the plant, which sustained his family for two generations, Bigman said it had other drawbacks, too.

“We’re taking so many minerals out of the earth,” he said. “If you sit down and really think about it in your heart, it’s destroying the environment.”

Zak Podmore is a Report for America corps member and writes about conflict and change in San Juan County for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.