Standing up on Desert Rock

By Michelle Chen Apr 29, 2009

An environmental justice struggle in the heart of Indian Country took a new turn on Monday, with a decision by the Obama administration to reconsider a permit for a proposed power plant in New Mexico. The planned Desert Rock project would plop a massive coal plant—billed as a state-of-the-art facility—onto sensitive (and to many, sacred) Four Corners Region of the Navajo Nation. Local communities have risen up in opposition, seeing the venture as an extension of a legacy of exploitation of the Navajos’ resources. The project would compound the polluting effects of two existing coal plants in the region. The Environmental Protection Agency has moved to remand the permit, possibly representing a shift toward greater responsiveness to the environmental justice issues in indigenous communities. Back in 2007, the EPA’s draft environmental impact statement downplayed potential negative effects on public health. According to a complaint filed last year with EPA’s Environmental Appeals Board by activsts, the environmental review had not included a thorough analysis of emissions control technology and had failed to fully consider carbon dioxide emissions as well as potential harm to the area’s delicate water supply and wildlife. The environmental law group EarthJustice argued, “Emissions from the coal plant would more than offset commitments to cut pollution from other nearby sources.” In another throwback to a dirtier past, the project’s financial support has streamed in from Wall Street through Sithe Global Power, a firm with ties to the Blackstone Group. But there was also support for the plant from within the Navajo community, revealing tensions between environmental rights and the critical need for economic development in indigenous communities. Reacting to the EPA’s walk-back from the project, Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley, Jr. stated, “’This is about sovereignty. This is about saving self. This is about the Navajo Nation regaining its independence by developing the financial wherewithal to take care of its own problems.” Dine CARE, a local advocacy group, has a different vision. The group has dismissed claims that the power plant would yield jobs and pushed instead for the development of renewable energy sources on Navajo land. The “benefits” of the proposed coal-based plant, critics note, would go in large part not to local Navajo people, but to consumers throughout the Southwest, where there is insatiable demand for cheap electricity. Former EPA official Jeff Holmstead, who now serves on Sithe’s legal team, expressed surprise at the new administration’s audacity:

“I don’t think anyone ever imagined that the new team at EPA would seem to have such little regard for due process or basic notions of fairness. Everyone understands that a new administration has discretion to change rules and policies prospectively. But I’ve never seen any administration try to change policies and rules retroactively.”

But in a commentary in Earth First!, Elouise Brown, president of the advocacy group Doodá Desert Rock, had a different take on fairness:

Our core philosophy is to protect our future from within—not with corporate bias, political influence or self-destructive economic development. We want cultural preservation for all humanity, equal and alike.

If that philosophy sticks on Desert Rock, then we may have at least one instance when the Obama administration acknowledges that sometimes, you have to look back and address past wrongs in order to move forward. Image: Protest against Desert Rock Energy Project ("A Question of Power," Carlan Tapp)