Four Corners haze: harbinger of climate change

Just weeks before President Obama announced details of his climate change action plan, federal officials approved a deal to allow expanded mining of coal on Navajo lands and its continued burning at the Four Corners Power Plant near Farmington, NM. The deal extends the lease on the plant by 25 years, and allows for an expansion of the Navajo Mine that supplies it. It came less than a month after operators of the Four Corners plant (chiefly Arizona Public Service) agreed to settle a lawsuit by federal officials and environmental groups that claimed plant emissions violated the Clean Air Act. Under the settlement, operators agreed to spend up to $160 million on equipment to reduce harmful emissions, and to set aside millions more for health and environmental programs. The regional haze produced by the plant and others ringing the Navajo reservation has long drawn protest. Under pressure from the EPA, the plant in 2013 shut down the oldest and dirtiest three of the five generating units to help the facility meet emission standards. But many locals are not appeased. "Our Mother Earth is being ruined," said Mary Lane, president of the Forgotten People, a grassroots Navajo organization. "We don't want the power plant to go on. It's ruining all the environment, the air, the water." (Navajo-Hopi Observer, July 21)

The Navajo Mine's operations have also drawn protest on the reservation, which straddles the borders of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. In April, a federal judge in Colorado ordered Navajo Mine operators not to strip-mine coal in its permitted northern expansion area, rejecting the Office of Surface Mining's 2012 approval of the expansion as a violation of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) that failed to consider the impacts of coal burning. (Farmington Daily Times, April 11)

Late last year, the Navajo Nation completed its purchase of the Four Corners plant. Diné CARE, a Navajo environmental group, opposed the purchase, arguing that previous mine owner BHP Billiton was trying to dump an unprofitable asset on the Navajo people. The Four Corners plant is to buy 30% less coal following the closure of the three dirty units. (High Country News, Jan. 7, 2014)

The Mohave Power Station in Laughlin, Nev., supplied by the the Peabody Energy's Black Mesa Mine (also on the Navajo reservation) was shut down in 2005. In its 30 years of operation, Peabody's  103-square-mile Black Mesa mine left a toxic legacy along a 273-mile now-abandoned coal-slurry pipeline. The mine was the source of an estimated 325 million tons of climate pollution discharged into the atmosphere. Peabody's still-operating Kayenta Mine supplies approximately 7.5 million tons of low-sulfur thermal coal annually to the Navajo Generating Station near Page, Ariz. 

Contrived "range war"
Last October saw federal SWAT team raids—backed up with helicopters and drones—to enforce limits on sheep grazing by traditional Navajos in the Black Mesa area. Homes were reportedly invaded and families held at rifle-point. The Hopi tribe and Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) say that some 50 residents have exceeded their limit of 28 sheep per household, supposedly a measure against over-grazing. The joint operation by Hopi rangers and BIA agents took place in the so-called "Hopi Partitioned Lands," from which many Navajo families have been forcibly relocated over the past generation. This relocation was mandated by the 1974 Navajo and Hopi Settlement Act, passed by Congress to resolve a "Hopi-Navajo land dispute" that many on the two adjacent reservations saw as contrived by mineral interests.

The Hopi and Navajo tribal governments cut deals with the oil and mining companies, and vie with each other for the spoils. But when Peabody sought to expand into the Big Mountain area of Black Mesa in the 1970s, the traditional Navajos living there resisted. Peabody lobbyists sold Congress on a supposed Hopi-Navajo "range war" to push through legislation for forcibly removing the Navajo from one half of what had up to then been the Hopi-Navajo Joint Use Area, shared by both tribes. These lands, turned over to the Hopi Tribe, include the mineral-rich Navajo stronghold of Big Mountain. The new land set aside for the 10,000 relocated Navajo on the banks of the Rio Puerco is itself contaminated by radioactive mine waste. A few elderly Navajo remain on the land at Big Mountain, while litigation keeps Peabody at bay. (Al Jazeera America, Dec. 28, 2014; Environmental Justice Case Study, University of Michigan; Geopolitics of the Navajo-Hopi 'Land Dispute' by John Redhouse, PDF)

Uranium threat
There are also fears that expansion of Peabody's operations could include a revival of uranium mining on Black Mesa. Uranium mining began on the Navajo reservation in the 1940s and continued through the 1980s, leaving a grave toll on local health. There are 1,200 abandoned uranium mines in the Navajo Nation, where lung cancer rates are significantly disproportionate. (Environmental Health Perspectives, January 2015) With uranium leaching from abandoned mines into groundwater and contaminating wells, many Navajos must drive miles for water. (Arizona Republic, Aug. 5)

Just last August, the Navajo Nation blocked a "backdoor deal" that would have allowed uranium mining to resume, lifting a reservation-wide ban instated in 2005. The tribal council voted 18-3 to rescind legislation passed in December 2013 by an unauthorized committee. It would have allowed Colorado-based Uranium Resources Inc (URI) to begin mining on private lands near Church Rock, at the eastern edge of the reservation in New Mexico—the site of the 1979 waste spill that contaminated the Rio Puerco. (ICTMN, Aug. 1, 2014)

Methane plume over Four Corners
Gas extraction and fracking have also rapidly spread across the Four Corners region. Now it emerges that the methane leaking from some 40,000 gas wells in and around the Navajo reservation is visible from space. Satellites have detected a giant methane plume the size of Delaware. The country's biggest methane "hot spot," verified by NASA and University of Michigan scientists last year, is the most dramatic example of methane loss from hydrocarbon extraction. Methane accounts for about 9% of US greenhouse gas emissions, and the biggest source—nearly 30 percent—is the oil and gas industry. Producers lose 8 million metric tons of methane a year—enough to provide power to every household in the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia. NASA scientists say the plume over the Four Corners region represents nearly 600,000 metric tons of wasted methane annually—roughly enough to supply the residential energy needs of a city the size of San Francisco. (WP, Dec. 29, 2014)

Mega-droughts forseen
An irony is that as Four Corners is plundered for its hydrocarbons, the arid region is particularly vulnerable to climate change that results from burning hydrocarbons. A new study predicts that in the second half of the 21st century, the Southwest and Great Plains will face drought conditions worse than anything in "ancient or modern" times. According to the findings, future droughts in both regions will be more severe than even the mega-droughts of the 12th and 13th centuries, which are believed to have contributed to the fall of the region's lost civilizations such as the ancient Puebloans (Anasazi).

"We are the first to do this kind of quantitative comparison between the projections and the distant past, and the story is a bit bleak," said co-author Jason E. Smerdon of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University's Earth Institute. "Even when selecting for the worst megadrought-dominated period, the 21st century projections make the megadroughts seem like quaint walks through the Garden of Eden." The study, "Unprecedented 21st-Century Drought Risk in the American Southwest and Central Plains," was published in the inaugural edition of the new online journal Science Advances, produced by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. It includes research by scientists at NASA and Columbia and Cornell universities. (ThinkProgress, Feb. 13)

  1. Navajo suit over reservation fracking

    Diné CARE, or Diné Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment, filed suit against the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the Department of the Interior for the federal government's approval of 130 new oil wells in New Mexico near the eastern edge of the Navajo Nation, citing the risk to groundwater form fracking. (ICTMN, April 11)