A path paved in coal

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A path paved in coal

Navajo Nation looks to old energy to break from past
Cindy Dixon speaks about her health issues she attributes to living just 1,443 yards from the Navajo Mine. Irritated eyes and respiratory issues are among the problems she describes. The fine particles produced by coal-fired power plants worsen asthma and bronchitis, according to the American Lung Association.
The property of John Lowe sits in the foreground as a dragline excavator moves dirt in the Lowe Pit of Navajo Mine. Navajo Nation is in negotiations to buy the mine from BHP Billiton in 2016 when BHP’s lease ends. Critics say the mine is not viable and worry that tribal corruption could hinder the mine from producing revenue.
A layer of haze rises west of the Four Corners Power Plant. The Navajo Mine supplies the power plant with about 8 million tons of coal a year. The main stakeholder of the plant is decommissioning the three oldest generating units rather than install new equipment to meet Environmental Protection Agency requirements.
BHP Billiton spokesman Norman Benally steps down from one of the smaller buckets used at Navajo Mine. The buckets are attached to dragline excavators and used to drag dirt out of the mine, revealing coal for bulldozers to grab. A smaller bucket can hold 55 cubic yards of dirt, while a larger one can hold 130 cubic yards.
While loaders fill trucks with as much as 220 tons of coal in the background, a bucket attached to a dragline excavator moves dirt from atop the coal seam in what is called the Dixon Pit at Navajo Mine.
At what cost comes coal?

Navajo Nation wants coal to once again be king.

Its pending purchase of the Navajo Mine from BHP Billiton is the trumpet that would herald coal's return.

But some Navajo tribe members worry king coal won't be a benevolent ruler. They fear tribal mismanagement and corruption could bog down the mine's capacity to produce sustainable jobs and revenue. They also worry that mining would cause health problems.

Mine workers and other tribal members fear job losses if the deal does not go through and the mine shuts down when BHP's lease ends in 2016. Nevertheless, they don't think Navajo Nation should take over the mine.

“I'd rather see another company mine it,” said Navajo Mine worker and tribal member Larry Lowe, who lives on the reservation. “I don't trust the tribe. The tribe will start something up, and it'll be great, but then it'll die.”

Mine worker and Navajo member Judy Gilmore said the tribe taking over the mine has become a joke among mine employees.

A special prosecutor filed a lawsuit against 78 former and current Tribal Council members in 2011, alleging they defrauded the tribe out of $36 million in discretionary funds intended for Navajo members in need. Some of the members are facing criminal charges.

Tribal leaders say it's unfair to not look at their entire record on energy development, including the creation of a natural-gas company.

“We have people that are definitely capable of operating at very high level. Those are the people we are going to be looking to should this mine acquisition follow through,” said Erny Zah, spokesman for the Navajo Nation president.

Gilmore doesn't worry about the mine changing ownership. In fact, she views the change as a positive step and an opportunity for her to work somewhere else with BHP.

Cindy Dixon would like that opportunity, too.

With the Navajo Indian Reservation stretching out in all directions but one, Dixon sits inside a dirt-floor outbuilding next to her modified and stationary RV home. She tries to shelter herself from the 15-degree chill outside. A coal-fired heating stove purrs, the lone source of warmth in the small wood structure.

Dixon says she suffers headaches, dizziness and a severe case of asthma. Her doctor prescribed a nebulizer and C-PAP machine to help her breathe at night and keep the asthma attacks at bay. But the home doesn't have running water or electricity, rendering the equipment useless.

Though the heater hums a couple of feet away, the source of its coal lies just outside: Dixon and her niece, Roselyn Begay, live about 1,500 yards from the Navajo Mine. They say ash from the coal mine and emissions from the nearby Four Corners Power Plant it supplies are the root of their health woes.

The fine particles produced by coal-fired power plants worsen asthma and bronchitis, and increase the risk of premature death, heart attacks and strokes, said the American Lung Association. The fine particles travel deeper into the lungs and are not filtered out by the nose and larger airways.

And it's not just people living in close proximity to the power plant who can be affected. The emissions can affect people who live hundreds of miles away.

Dixon worries her health problems will continue if the tribe makes coal power the center of its energy portfolio.

“I regret moving here,” Dixon said. “We can't leave a window open because the coal comes in. Just look at the mess we're in, and we don't even use it (electricity).”



jdahl@durangoherald.com

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A path paved in coal

Cindy Dixon speaks about her health issues she attributes to living just 1,443 yards from the Navajo Mine. Irritated eyes and respiratory issues are among the problems she describes. The fine particles produced by coal-fired power plants worsen asthma and bronchitis, according to the American Lung Association.
The property of John Lowe sits in the foreground as a dragline excavator moves dirt in the Lowe Pit of Navajo Mine. Navajo Nation is in negotiations to buy the mine from BHP Billiton in 2016 when BHP’s lease ends. Critics say the mine is not viable and worry that tribal corruption could hinder the mine from producing revenue.
A layer of haze rises west of the Four Corners Power Plant. The Navajo Mine supplies the power plant with about 8 million tons of coal a year. The main stakeholder of the plant is decommissioning the three oldest generating units rather than install new equipment to meet Environmental Protection Agency requirements.
BHP Billiton spokesman Norman Benally steps down from one of the smaller buckets used at Navajo Mine. The buckets are attached to dragline excavators and used to drag dirt out of the mine, revealing coal for bulldozers to grab. A smaller bucket can hold 55 cubic yards of dirt, while a larger one can hold 130 cubic yards.
While loaders fill trucks with as much as 220 tons of coal in the background, a bucket attached to a dragline excavator moves dirt from atop the coal seam in what is called the Dixon Pit at Navajo Mine.
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