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Controversy over power versus jobs on Navajo land

The classic struggle between environmentalists and industrialists is playing out in microcosm on the largest Indian reservation in the country. The Arizona Republic lays out the conflict in a fascinating three-part series that looks at the controversies surrounding coal mining and power plant development on Navajo land.

The EPA wants the tribe to install scrubbers to cut down on pollutants at the massive Navajo Generating Station. Some tribe members, including Joe Shirley Jr., president of the Navajo Nation, say the costs would shut down the plants, and thrust more residents into poverty during a time when tribal unemployment is already over 50 percent.

Shirley says he doesn’t believe coal power is damaging. Nor does he believe in climate change. That stance has put him at odds with members of his own tribe who say Navajo people can’t abdicate environmental stewardship of their land.

“The thing that I find shocking is that, as Navajos, we are taught that there are different monsters in creation that try to destroy us,” says Tony Skrelunas, a Navajo who works for the Grand Canyon Trust and spoke to the Arizona Republic. “I think one of those that is really rising up is climate change.

The controversy has spilled to neighboring Hopi land, where some of the coal is mined. It has divided families, and disrupted the power structure of tribal governments.

How it plays out, however, will affect a much wider citizen base – the residents in the four corner states and beyond who rely on the water stored and conveyed using electricity generated by the tribal plants.

Navajo leader backs banning environmentalists from reservation; native journo questions MSM coverage

The last time I saw Marley Shebala, she was at the airport. She couldn't get her ATM card to work. She was facing a series of flights home to Arizona. And she was nearly cashless after a week at a journalism seminar. It was the week I was losing my job at the P-I, and I was about to go on unemployment. But I gave her $20 anyway. She'd been so cool to have as a partner in learning at the New York Times Institute on the Environment.

[caption id="attachment_5311" align="alignright" width="73" caption="Marley Shebala"]Marley Shebala[/caption]

I've run into Marley over the years at a number of journalism events and had come to understand that I could always look forward to provocative questions and exciting comments  from her. She's a pistol of a reporter for the Navajo Times and, as High Country News put it, an "undaunted muckraker."

So I was really glad to see her comment in a piece the other day by The Daily Yonder on Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley, Jr.'s support for the Hopi Tribal Council’s recent unanimous decision to ban environmentalist groups from their reservation in Arizona.

The tribal leaders, you see, are angry about the greens' efforts to shut down the the Navajo Generation Station, a coal-fired power plant near Page, Arizona.