Black Mesa, AZ is a hot spot for transitioning out of extreme energy in the form of coal fired power plants and into clean, renewable sources of energy and jobs. This ten year Just Transition Initiative and current local manifestation of the Our Power Campaign is anchored by the Black Mesa Water Coalition.
Background: Protecting and Restoring the Mother
Black Mesa is significant to the Navajo people for a number of reasons. Four sacred mountains located in Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado surround the traditional homeland of the Navajo people. Together these mountains form the boundaries of the Navajo people’s home and universe. Within these four mountains, there are several more sacred landmarks that are strongholds of Navajo language, culture, ceremonies and teachings. Black Mesa is one of these strongholds. In the Navajo worldview, Black Mesa represents the woman and mother, head of the home outlined by the four sacred mountains. The waters of Black Mesa are her blood and the coal of Black Mesa is her liver.
The Challenge: Extreme Energy and Economic Dependence
Black Mesa is also home to two coal mines operated by Peabody Coal Company: the Black Mesa Mine and the Kayenta Mine. Coal from the Black Mesa Mine was mixed with water from the Navajo Aquifer – sole source of drinking water in the region – and slurried through a 273 mile long pipeline to the Mojave Generating Station (MGS) in Laughlin, Nevada. MGS provided cheap electricity for the major southwestern cities including Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and Phoenix for nearly 40 years before being shut down in 2006. The Kayenta Mine provides coal to the Navajo Generating Station (NGS) located in Page, Arizona. NGS’ primary job is to pump water from northern Arizona to central and southern Arizona through the Central Arizona Project (CAP). NGS is also the only coal-fired power plant in the country that is majority owned by the federal government through the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. This infrastructure, which transported essential resources to the deserts of central and southern Arizona, essentially built the state.
The coal mines on Black Mesa are part of a legacy started in the early 1920s to ensure the Navajo Nation’s economic dependence on fossil fuel development. The Navajo Nation’s first Tribal Council, created in the early 1920s, was actually a business council formed explicitly to sign deals with large energy corporations. Nine decades later, our Nation is an illustration of a broken economy dependent on fossil fuels. Despite promises that uranium, oil, gas, and coal leases would bring in millions of dollars in royalties and create thousands of jobs, a visit to our reservation reveals a completely different reality. The Navajo Nation’s unemployment rate hovers around 54% and the population’s average income is $7,500/year. While utility lines run right over our heads, 18,000 Navajo households live without electricity. This accounts for 75% of all un-electrified homes in the United States.
In addition to the 2,250 MW NGS, the reservation is surrounded by four other large and toxic coal-fired power plants: the San Juan Generating Station (1,800 MW), the Four Corners Power Plant (2,040 MW), Escalate (250 MW), and Cholla Power Plant (995 MW). These plants create air pollution on our sparsely populated reservation that rivals big cities such as Denver, CO. The fossil fuel economy has left us with polluted air and land, contaminated and depleted water, resulting in various health ailments and social problems in our communities. Climate change is another concern that looms on the horizon, promising drastic changes in ecosystems and weather patterns.
The Just Transition Initiative: A Vision for Moving Towards Local Living Economy
The Just Transition Initiative is Black Mesa’s manifestation of the Our Power Campaign. Since it started in 2005, this initiative serves as a model for how other communities dealing with extreme energy can fight to shut down polluting facilities AND put in place clean, community controlled sources of energy and green economy jobs that build off of the strengths of the local people, culture, and land.
The Black Mesa Water Coalition implements the Just Transition Initiative through three programs:
No Coal and Environmental Justice Program
- to hold Peabody Coal Company accountable for the damage done to Black Mesa’s water, environment, and community health;
- to permanently close the coal mines on Black Mesa; and
- to replace the coal-fired power plants fed by the Black Mesa mines with renewable energy.
- The Black Mesa Solar Project is a holistic approach to energy development that takes into consideration community participation and benefits, job training and environmental impact. The long-term vision of the project is to establish a solar manufacturing facility and a series of 20MW to 200MW solar photovoltaic installations on the abandoned mine land of Black Mesa.
Navajo Green Economy Program
- to develop long-term, sustainable, locally based “green” economies that place value not only on profits, but also on the protection and preservation of lands, waters, air, culture and future generations. This program houses pilot projects that exemplify an appropriate development path that honors the sacred ecological relationships and incorporates traditional practices into economic development.
- The Navajo Wool Market Project is aimed at building local Navajo capacity to improve the quality of wool production and to elevate access to a fair market value for Navajo wool producers.
- The Food Security Project works with seven communities to begin working towards revitalizing, strengthening and supporting the local food systems of the Black Mesa region.
- The Climate Justice Solutions Project has two key goals: to educate the communities of Black Mesa about climate change and engage them in creating local solutions to this global issue. These local solutions can reflect both adaptation strategies, such as restoring regional watersheds, or mitigation strategies, such as transitioning from coal to solar energy development on Black Mesa.
Leadership Development and Movement building
- The goals for our movement building work are two-fold. First, we aim to build a strong regional environmental justice movement led by indigenous communities and organizations.
- Second, we aim to support larger environmental and social justice movements by engaging in strategic national and international alliances, such as the Climate Justice Alliance, that reflect and therefore build power with and for the work of BMWC. In 2010 we established the Southwest Indigenous Leadership Institute (SWILI), which directs Indigenous youth on a leadership development path that values and reflects sustainability.