New Coal Plants on the Drawing Board

  • Members of Dooda Desert Rock. From left, Alice Gilmore, Elouise Brown, her son JC, her brother-in-law and her grandfather, Julius Gilmore. Her grandparents Alice and Julius lived their whole lives just down the hill from here. They would have to be relocated if the power plant is built. (Photo by Daniel Kraker)

To meet the country’s growing demand for
energy, there are about 150 new
coal-burning power plants on the drawing board.
But not everyone is thrilled about relying on
coal as a future energy source. Daniel Kraker
takes us to a place where people have
lived next to these power plants for decades.
And now they’re fighting plans to build another
one:

Transcript

There’s been a lot of talk about developing clean energy sources, like wind and solar
power. But coal is still king. And to meet the country’s growing energy demand there are
about 150 new coal fired power plants on the drawing board. But not everyone is thrilled
about relying on coal as a significant future energy source. Daniel Kraker takes us to a
place where people have lived next to these power plants for decades. And now they’re
fighting plans to build another one:


In northwest New Mexico, the Navajo Indian reservation is a spectacular other-worldly
landscape of mesas and giant sandstone rock formations jutting out of the red earth.
Underneath the ground are huge reserves of coal. This is where the Navajo government
and a company called Sithe Global Power want to build a 1500-megawatt power plant
called Desert Rock, and it’s here where a small group of Navajos who oppose the project
have set up their base of resistance.


“It’s called Dooda Desert Rock, Dooda means ‘no’ in Navajo.”


That’s Elouise Brown. She’s president of a group of Navajos who live near the proposed
construction site. They’ve been camped out there since December, in a small plywood
shack attached to a trailer. Brown says she’s quit her day job to protest the project full-time:


“I think this whole coal plant is just, people are just looking at dollar signs. They don’t
care about their people, they don’t care about their mother earth, global warming…And I
think it’s about time that we be heard, we’re going to stand here and stay here until
somebody listens to us.”


Brown walks outside the shack with her son and grandfather, Julius Gilmore. He points
out in Navajo where the power plant would go.


“You see the drill down there? It’s just northeast of there…”


“And that’s your grandfather’s house right there?”


“Yes.”


Her grandparents have spent their entire life there. They’ll have to be relocated if the plant
is built.


From the protestors’ camp the tips of two giant smokestacks are visible. The Four Corners
and San Juan Generating Stations were built in the 1970s during the last big construction
wave of coal fired plants. Desert Rock would be the third power plant in this area. Frank
Maisano is a spokesman for Desert Rock:


“Already in the region there is 2300 megawatts of new requests for power, and that is just to
satisfy massive growth in the region right now. Those who say that, ‘Oh we just won’t use
coal.’ They’re not looking at the larger picture, which says we really do have to have a
balanced approach, not just that we don’t like this one little carbon dioxide emission that
comes from this plant.”


Maisano says Desert Rock would be one of the cleanest coal fired plants in the country.
He says scrubbers would remove many of the harmful chemicals that can lead to health
problems and smog. And it would cough up less carbon dioxide than the older generation
of coal-fired plants.


“It’s a higher heat rate so that the coal is heated up so it combusts more completely,
basically what you’re doing is, you’re getting more efficiency, you’re getting more
megawatts out of less coal.”


Still, Desert Rock would emit about 10 million tons of CO2 every year. That’s only about
15% less than older plants. There are 150 coal fired plants like this one on the
drawing board across the country, and 40 of those are likely to start up in the next five
years.


Many environmentalists worry if Desert Rock and other coal plants are built, we’ll be
saddling the country with growing greenhouse gas emissions for decades to come.
Roger Clark is Air and Energy Director with the Grand Canyon Trust:


“As a nation we should consider a ban on all new coal plants. We’re at a point now where
we need to start reversing the amount of greenhouse gasses that we’re putting into the
atmosphere. It’s 19th century technology here in the 21st century that is something that we
don’t need.”


The country’s population is growing, and our thirst for energy is growing right along with
it. Roger Clark and others believe we can meet that growing demand through energy
efficiency improvements, combined with investments in renewables.


Here in the southwest, the Navajo Nation is in the early stages of developing a wind farm.
But that would only produce 200 megawatts of electricity; Desert Rock would be seven
times that size.


The tribe’s primary focus in this debate isn’t CO2 emissions, or climate change, it’s
revenue. Desert Rock would generate an estimated 50 million dollars annually for the
impoverished tribe. If the plant gets its final environmental approvals, and it isn’t taken to
court, that money could start flowing as early as 2012.


For the Environment Report, I’m Daniel Kraker

Related Links

Battle Over the Right to Grow Rice

  • Roger LaBine winnows the wild rice. (Photo by Michael Loukinen, Up North Films)

Since European settlers first came to this country they have had serious conflicts with Native Americans. The GLRC’s Sandy Hausman reports on one modern-day dispute between a Native American tribe and communities in the upper Midwest:

Transcript

Since European settlers first came to this country they have had serious conflicts with
Native Americans. The GLRC’s Sandy Hausman reports on one modern-day dispute
between a Native American tribe and communities in the upper Midwest:


(Sound of Ojibwe music)


The Ojibwe tribe first came to the north woods of Michigan and Wisconsin hundreds of
years ago. They say their migration from the east coast was guided by prophets. Those
prophets told them to keep moving until they came to a place where food grows on the
water. Roger Labine is a spiritual leader with the tribe. He says that food was wild rice:


“This was a gift to us. This is something that is very, very sacred to us. This is very
important, just as our language. This is part of who we are.”


For hundreds of years, wild rice was a staple of the tribe’s diet, but starting in the 1930s,
private construction of hydroelectric dams pushed water levels in rice growing areas up.
High water killed most of the plants and took a toll on wildlife. Bob Evans is a biologist
with the U.S. Forest Service. He says fish, bird and insect populations dropped
dramatically:


“Black tern is a declining, threatened species that is known to use wild rice beds,
Trumpeter swans. They’re a big user of rice beds. Um, just a whole lot of plants and
animals. It’s really a whole ecosystem in itself.”


So in 1995, the tribe, the U.S. Forest Service and several other government agencies
demanded a change. A year later, the federal government ordered dam operators to drop
their maximum water levels by 9 inches. The dam owners appealed that decision, but in
2001 a federal court ruled against them.


That fall, the Ojibwe who live on Lac Vieux
Desert harvested nearly 16 acres of wild rice and this summer, the tribe is tending more than 55 acres.
But the resurgence of rice beds comes at a price. Lower lake levels have left docks in this
boating community high and dry, created muddy shorelines and made long-time residents
and summer boaters angry:


“I used to come here and dock all the time. We picnicked here. I had to walk in 50 feet,
because there wasn’t enough water to float a pontoon, and it’s that way all around the
lake.”


Ken Lacount is president of the Lac Vieux Desert homeowners association. He first
came here in the 1940s and doesn’t see why his cultural traditions should take a backseat
to those of the Ojibwe:


“My grandfather built one of the first resorts. I fished in Rice Bay my entire life. That
was his favorite place to take me.”


Lacount is bitter. He and his neighbors feel powerless to change the situation, since a
federal court has ruled for the Ojibwa. Defenders of that decision say water levels are
especially low because of a prolonged drought in region. When that ends, they predict
lake levels will rise, and homeowners on Lac Vieux Desert will be happier.


(Sound of paddling)


Such conflicts are nothing new. Ron Seeley is a reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal. He’s covered Native American issues for more than 20 years. Paddling through the rice beds, he recalls an earlier battle
over fishing rights. In the late 80s, a court ruled the Ojibwe were entitled by treaty to
spear fish each spring. Local fishermen worried the practice would destroy their industry:


“Sometimes thousands of people would show up at the landings on a spring night. Tribal
members from all over the upper Midwest would come to support the spearers and drum
and chant. The anti-Indian forces were arrested for using wrist rockets or real powerful
sling shots to shoot pellets at the tribal members while they were out spearing. It was a
violent time up here.”


As court after court upheld the rights of native spear fishermen, and as commercial
fishermen continue to prosper, hostilities subsided and now, as the Native Americans prepare for
their biggest rice harvest in more than 50 years, the Ojibwe hope that the controversy over water levels
will also die down. Tribal leader Roger Labine says wild rice is a symbol of the Ojibwe’s survival:


“This is an endangered species. It’s something that we’re fighting to save, just like the
eagle, just like the wolf. We were put here to care for Mother Earth and all the gifts that
the creator gave us.”


And having won the first battle to restore rice beds, Labine is hoping to secure even
greater protection for these wetlands by asking the federal government to declare the rice
beds historic.


For the GLRC, I’m Sandy Hausman.

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