As a small girl, Enei Begaye knew to be quiet when visiting friends’ houses. Nearly everyone in the 4,900-person town of Kayenta, Arizona, part of the Navajo Nation, worked in the area’s coal mines, Black Mesa and Kayenta, which operated twenty-four hours a day. Begaye and her friends would play quietly so they wouldn’t disturb sleeping elders back from the night shift.
Most of the Kayenta’s population lived in trailers set up by Peabody Energy, the company that owned the mines. Coal companies are major employers throughout the Navajo Nation. In fact, more than half the Nation’s General Fund comes from revenue from coal mining. Nor is resource extraction limited to coal—oil and gas are also collected, together comprising over a quarter of the General Fund budget.
As an adult, Begaye questioned the coal mining that sustained her family and hometown. Apart from providing low wages and hazardous working conditions, coal mining has polluted the township and surrounding environment. The impact of strip mining has been documented since the late 1970s as eliminating existing vegetation, displacing or destroying wildlife and habitats, degrading air quality, altering current land use, and permanently changing the general landscape of the area mined.
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Peabody used billions of gallons of water from local springs and aquifers to move slurry—a mix of coal and water—through a 273-mile pipeline from the mines to the power plant where it would be burned. By 2000, water reserves in the Black Mesa were in serious decline. The company proposed using water from the aquifer that provided drinking water to Flagstaff and the northwestern areas of the reservation.
Navajo and Hopi communities rose up in protest. Begaye testified in front of the California Public Utilities Commission during a meeting to decide the fate of the Mohave Generating Station, which is powered by the coal from the Black Mesa mine. “I testified that I didn’t want the mine open,” said Begaye. “We’ve seen the leak in the pipeline, seen the devastation to the land, and the social injustice—the springs dry up because the coal mines are using the drinking water.” She joined the Black Mesa Water Coalition, a grassroots group working to protect Black Mesa’s water supply.
In 2005, the Navajo and Hopi tribal councils passed resolutions to end Peabody’s access to the aquifer. Without water, and facing a Clean Air Act lawsuit, the Black Mesa mine and the Mohave Generating Station ceased operations. Peabody is now seeking to reopen the Black Mesa mine under a different permit in order to supply coal to a different generating station.
But the curb on coal mining on Navajo lands was a bittersweet victory for many on the reservation, where nearly 50 percent of residents were unemployed in 2004 and many residents depended on the low wage jobs the mines provide. Begaye found it hard for many years to return home to Kayenta to face her friends’ parents who lost their jobs. Now, she and other organizers with the BMWC see their strategy for indigenous justice as two-pronged: rid the land of dirty coal mining and advocate for the just transition of Navajo and Hopi peoples to a sustainable and locally run economy that provides high quality green jobs and career pathways for indigenous youth and adults.
“We realized that we can’t always be part of always saying no," said Begaye. "We have to be part of a solution, to build jobs. If we’re going to transition out of the fossil fuels economy, we have to find a way to transition our employment choices. Not only for the miners, but for the future generations of Navajos.”
The Navajo economy and tribal economic development needed to be fundamentally redefined, in a scalable manner that would provide jobs for thousands of Navajo youth. “The Navajo Nation wasn’t ready to shut down the mines,” said Wahleah Johns, former BMWC codirector. “They didn’t have a plan in place to take care of the mine workers who would be out of jobs. They didn’t have a plan for a transition. So, we felt it was necessary to talk about a just transition plan, to help to really take care of our people. These same workers are in our families, and we didn’t want to leave them high and dry."
To make that vision a reality, BMWC joined with allies—including Tó Nizhóní Ání, the Apollo Alliance, and the Sierra Club—to create the Just Transition Coalition, a group whose goal is to wean the tribes’ economy, energy, and employment off fossil fuels. Their campaigns against coal, they realized, were only band-aids: They had to create a viable alternative to replace it.
Black Mesa Water Coalition and their allies spearheaded a green jobs campaign beginning in April 2008 to diversify the Navajo economy and create opportunities for employment in renewable energy for youth. In July 2009, the Navajo tribal government passed a green jobs act, establishing a Navajo Green Economy Commission and Fund, which can apply for federal and local funds to create green jobs as well as sponsor small-scale, green developments that will help to create jobs for Navajo youth and provide needed services to the community.
The grassroots organizers see the Navajo Green Jobs legislation as a revolutionary shift for their nation, which will fundamentally change their economy while democratizing tribal government. The youth and community groups will continue working until their broad vision becomes a reality.
The old apprenticeship model of learning by doing gets new life as people who’ve been left out of the job market train to meet the growing demand for green-collar workers.