Profile: The Rainmaker A Hopi leader champions clean power in Indian Country
by Marilyn Berlin Snell
(page 2 of 2)
THE FIRST MAJOR STEP toward this end was achieved on New Year's Eve 2005 when the Mohave Generating Station, the West's most polluting power plant, shut down--the result of a long-fought battle to clean up Western skies. In 1999, after the Sierra Club, the Grand Canyon Trust, and the National Parks Conservation Association sued Mohave's owners for Clean Air Act violations, the parties agreed that the plant had to either install modern pollution-control equipment or close by the end of 2005. The facility ran hard and dirty for the intervening six years and then went quiet rather than spend the estimated $1.2 billion for cleanup. When Mohave closed, Peabody had no buyer for its Black Mesa coal and so shut down its operation as well.
The Black Mesa Trust, in coordination with grassroots organizations in the Navajo Nation and elsewhere, had been pushing for the closure of both operations on environmental, cultural, and social-justice grounds. "Coal acts like a filter; it filters water, and that's good. But when you dig it out and burn it, all that junk goes up into the air, and you cause health and environmental problems," Masayesva says. He adds that "everyone is concerned about global warming," but he interprets the source of the problem from a uniquely Hopi perspective. He sees the disrespectful use of Black Mesa water as part of the broken covenant with Masaw. The water's disappearance from sacred springs, as well as global warming, is punishment for this transgression. Where science deduces that climate change is causing a reduction in available Western water, Hopi spirituality concludes that the careless use of water is causing climate change.
Modern rule-making being what it is, even the shuttering of Mohave did not constrain its profit potential. Federal regulations allow owners who reduce or eliminate smokestack emissions to sell credits for those emissions to other polluters. Southern California Edison, the majority owner of the plant, became immediately eligible under the Clean Air Act for a portion of those credits worth up to $52 million a year--because 40,000 tons of sulfur dioxide and other pollutants were no longer being emitted.
Masayesva and other members of what has come to be known as the Just Transition Coalition believe that the Hopi and Navajo people are entitled to those funds. After all, their cheap coal and water had kept costs down and profits high for both Peabody and Southern California Edison for decades. Last January, the coalition asked the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) to deposit Edison's share of Mohave's pollution-credit sales into a Hopi and Navajo trust fund. (The account would close in 2026, the year Mohave might have had to shut down anyway due to its loss of rights to Colorado River water, which it was also using in copious amounts to run the plant.) The first-of-its-kind fund, say coalition members, would be a form of restitution used for Hopi and Navajo development, "but in the right way, at the right time, for the right purpose," Masayesva adds.
According to the coalition's proposal, a percentage of the money would be used to help train the displaced Navajo and Hopi Peabody employees and to help ease the closure's broader economic impact on communities. (Even before Mohave shut down, the Hopi reservation had a 40 to 50 percent unemployment rate.) Most of the money, however, would fund renewable energy development on Native lands specifically to benefit tribes.
Stirling Energy Systems, a national leader in solar-power technology, contributed to the feasibility section of the Just Transition proposal. The company's executive vice president and general manager, Robert Liden, testified before the CPUC in 2004, after Masayesva had approached him and presented a vision of a solar-powered future on Hopi and Navajo lands. "He was both impressive and convincing," says Liden of Masayesva. Stirling ran the numbers and concluded that such a project was economically and technologically feasible--and would net the Hopi Tribe upwards of $8 million per year in revenues from a 500-megawatt solar-powered generating station, more than compensating for the revenues lost by Peabody's closure. "We even talked about the feasibility of raising the solar dishes so livestock could graze beneath them--they'd provide both power and shade," says Liden. "Vernon was excited about that prospect."
"Crazy idea, right?" Masayesva asks with a semblance of a grin. "The people who pointed fingers at the Black Mesa Trust as architects of an economic meltdown out here just laughed when we proposed this alternative." Neither the Hopi nor Navajo Tribal Council has backed the proposal. According to George Hardeen, spokesperson for Navajo Nation president Joe Shirley Jr., "It's not that the Navajo Nation is against Just Transition; it's just not for it, at least not yet." Hardeen adds that "employment is a critical issue" and that the nation's first choice would be to "reopen the Black Mesa mine."
The CPUC didn't laugh or ignore the idea, however. First it required Southern California Edison to record all pollution-credit profits from Mohave. Then the commission ordered the company to report back by January 1, 2007, on how it plans to spend the gathered funds. While the power company works to maintain control of the funds, Just Transition members, including the Indigenous Environmental Network and To' Nizhoni Ani (Navajo for "beautiful water speaks"), have taken the lead in gaining local support for the proposal. All coalition members are determined to challenge Edison if renewable energy development on tribal lands isn't a big part of its plan.
"When we take control of our resources and begin to develop them our way, there's no need for poverty here," says Masayesva.
AT SUNRISE EARLY LAST MARCH, Masayesva and a group of Hopi runners gathered for a water-blessing ceremony at Moencopi Springs, on the western edge of Hopi tribal lands. They were about to participate in a 2,000-mile, 14-day relay from Arizona to Mexico City, passing a gourd of sacred springwater from one runner to the next, delivering a message about the need to protect and conserve it to the World Water Forum in the Mexican capital. The idea had been Masayesva's. Though he traveled with the runners by van in the beginning, he had to return to the reservation because of a family emergency.
Thirty miles from his home, it began snowing. It rained and snowed for three days, snapping the area's longest recorded dry spell--though Arizona remains in a drought. "To me, it happened for a reason," he says. "It's the runners that made it happen." The organizers and athletes, who were upholding a Hopi tradition by running, were shut out of the forum--which focused mainly on management and privatization. They were welcomed, however, by the city's mayor and leaders from Mexico's Native communities. "Our traditions, our beliefs, aren't dead," Masayesva told those gathered for the ceremonies. "We are rain people trying to convey water's message."
Marilyn Berlin Snell is the senior writer for Sierra.