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Navajo power plant lease approved; opponents vow to fight Indian Country Today

Published by MAC on 2006-06-12

Navajo power plant lease approved; opponents vow to fight Indian Country Today

By Susan Montoya Bryan -- Associated Press

12th June 2006.

Navajo leaders recently approved a lease that would allow Houston-based Sithe Global Power and the tribe's Dine Power Authority to build a 1,5000-megawatt coal-fired plant on the reservation near Shiprock, N.M.

FARMINGTON, N.M. (AP) - A $2.5 billion coal-fired power plant that Navajo Nation officials are touting as one of the largest economic development projects in Indian country is one step closer to reality, but critics vowed to continue their fight.

The Navajo Council, during a special session May 12, voted 66 - 7 to approve a 50-year lease agreement that would allow the tribe's Dine Power Authority and Houston-based Sithe Global Power to build the plant on Navajo land in northwestern New Mexico.

''It's what we've been working for since three years ago,'' DPA general manager Steve Begay said the evening of May 12. ''It's all coming together.''

The Desert Rock Energy Project would produce 1,500 megawatts of electricity, enough to power up to 1.5 million homes. It's expected to provide more than 1,000 jobs during construction and as many as 400 permanent jobs once it's operational, possibly by late 2010.

Desert Rock would pay $50 million in taxes and royalties each year. That's about a third of the tribe's annual budget.

''This project is really a big project for the Navajo Nation and it's really a plus for Indian county and other Indian tribes,'' Begay said. ''It shows a big project can be done between Navajos and outside business. It sort of blazes the trail.''

Begay added that the success of Desert Rock would lessen the fear of Navajos and other Indians who are leery of promises made by outside businesses.

A group of activists who oppose Desert Rock attended the May 12 special session in Window Rock, Ariz. After hearing the vote, they vowed to continue their fight against the plant.

''We're not giving up,'' said Lori Goodman, a member of Dine' Citizens Against Ruining our Environment.

Goodman, who lives in the Four Corners area, is among those who are concerned that two existing power plants in the region already spew tons of emissions into the air, and any additional pollution would only make air quality worse.

She also said a burial site and a handful of other sacred sites are near the proposed location - a remote area bordered by vistas of the Chuska Mountains, Shiprock and the Chaco River Valley.

Opponents also question the impacts the plant would have on the area's water supply and whether Sithe would live up to its promises, unlike some other corporations that have done business with the Navajo Nation in the past.

Sithe spokesman Frank Maisano acknowledged the opposition, saying the project has become a ''very emotional issue'' for some.

''We think we can only live by our word,'' he said. ''We've got a real nice collaborative effort going and we've stood by the things we've said. We can't change the ghosts of the past.''

He said DPA and Sithe are trying to find a way to turn natural resources on the sprawling reservation - which spans parts of New Mexico, Arizona and Texas - into tangible benefits for the people.

Sithe officials have said Desert Rock would use about 80 percent less water than a traditional coal-fired plant and environmental controls would reduce emissions.

Sithe hopes to begin construction in 2007, but the council's approval of the lease is just one of the first steps. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is working on a draft impact statement and the BIA would have the last say on the project.

There may also be legal challenges.

Goodman noted that the Sanostee Chapter, to the west of the proposed plant, passed a resolution May 11 promising to comment on a draft air permit the federal government is expected to issue to Desert Rock. After reviewing the permit, the chapter said it would determine whether to file an appeal.

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