APACHE & NAVAJO COUNTIES — Apache, Navajo County economy hard-hit by plant closures, but death rates could fall.
No doubt about it.
Shutting down coal-fired power plants will slam the economy in Navajo and Apache Counties.
On the other hand, it could save lives.
And maybe slow down the warming of the plant.
The Navajo Generating plant has already closed – and with it the Peabody Coal Mine. The Cholla coal-fired plant near Joseph City is on the way out. The Coronado Generating Plant near St. Johns continues to operate for now, but faces the prospect of closure in the coming decade.
And that could reduce the number of jobs in Navajo County by 5 percent and the number of jobs in Apache County by 10 percent – with all its spinoff effects on local government.
Economics, not health or environmental impacts, have played the leading role in the closure of coal-fired power plants in the region. The cost of wind, solar and natural gas has tumbled, prompting power companies faced with the rising cost of pollution controls to shut down coal fired plants.
But economics alone don’t capture the full cost of the world’s heavy reliance on coal to generate electricity, according to a growing mountain of studies.
For instance, the now-shuttered Navajo Power Plant near Page had ranked as the 7th most polluting power plant in the United States – releasing 20 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere annually. The top 12 polluting plants in the US are all coal-powered, according to a recently compiled global database produce for the Center for Global Development. Still, Navajo produced half the emissions of the most-polluting power plant worldwide, which is in China.
The 50,000 power plants worldwide release 10 billion tons of CO2 annually, a quarter of the total emissions. On a per-person basis, Australia produces 11 tons per person from power plants annually, followed by the US at 9 tons per person. The Chinese produce 2 tons per capita and India about half of a ton per person. The US has 8,000 power plants producing about 2.8 billion tons of CO2 a year.
On the other hand, the database rated the Palo Verde Nuclear Power Plant as #1 when it came to the zero-emissions generation of power.
Arizona ranks #16 among the states, emitting 65 million tons of CO2 annually.
Economists estimate that the “social costs” of carbon emissions in terms of water, food production, health and the environment amount to somewhere between $8 and $100 per ton of CO2. That put the maximum social cost of the shuttered Navajo Generating Plant at somewhere between $160 million and $2 billion annually.
Another global study published in Nature Sustainability linked half of the health effects of coal-fired plants to just 10 power plants globally. Most of the power plants with the worst health effects are still in India and China, in part because they burn cheap coal with more sulphur dioxide and can’t afford modern flue gas treatment, like the controls used at Coronado.
The long, contradictory debate about the impact of the Navajo Generating Plant captures some of the painful contractions posed by generating electricity from coal.
The Navajo Generating Plant as well as Cholla has generated energy to fuel the growth of Phoenix – but 15,000 Navajo tribal members have no electricity at all. Moreover, residents of the rural areas where utilities build the power plants suffer most of the health impacts. Studies show emissions from coal-fired power plants significantly increase death rates, as well a premature births, low birthweight babies, heart disease, lung disease and other health problems. Since 2015, a network of groundwater monitoring wells has found 91 percent of coal-fired plants have resulted in unsafe levels of sulfur, arsenic and heavy metals in the groundwater.
Other coal-fired plants on the Navajo Reservation will close in the next few years, including the San Juan Generating Station and the Four Corners Power Plant in New Mexico. Native Americans provide a larger share of workers at each of those plants, with the overall unemployment rate on the reservation hovering at around 50 percent.
On the other hand, the vast open spaces of the Navajo Reservation and almost all of Apache and Navajo Counties offer some of the best opportunities in the nation for wind and solar power development. Already, developers have proposed a 400-MW wind farm and a 400-MW solar installation in Apache and Navajo Counties. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory rated the Navajo Reservation as having more renewable energy potential than any other reservation in the nation.
Those operations will provide about a third as much power as the now-shuttered Navajo Generation Plant. Once they’re in operation they’ll provide about 30 year-round jobs each. By contrast, the mine and power plant provided about 800 jobs in a job-starved rural region.
Still, one study by the Clean Air Task Force in 2014 estimated the Navajo Generating Station’s emissions annually cause an extra 12 deaths, 19 heart attacks and 230 asthma episodes in the region. The plant operators vigorously protested the methodology of that report, suggesting it didn’t account for the pollution controls in place.
The plant also consumed some 32,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water annually for pollution control and cooling – enough to supply some 70,000 homes. The plant used another 18,000 acre-feet of water from other sources – for a total of 50,000 acre-feet. It’s unclear who will gain the rights to that water – perhaps the Navajo Nation. On the other hand, it could revert to the seven states with rights to the Colorado River, led by California.
The nearby Black Mesa Mine next door to the Kayenta Mine once pumped 1 billion gallons of groundwater per year to operate the 273-mile-long slurry pipeline to the now shuttered Mohave power plant. The closure of that mine caused water levels in wells to begin to slowly rise again, after decades of decline, according to the US Geological Survey. However, most of the Navajo Nation remains in the grip of a severe drought and many historic springs have gone dry.
Peter Aleshire covers county government and other topics for the Independent. He is the former editor of the Payson Roundup. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org