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Three massive emissions stacks at the Navajo Generating Station coal-fired power plant near Page came down Friday with thundering detonations that erased them from the skyline they dominated for decades.
The demolition of the largest coal burner in the West is a milestone for environmentalists who fought, and continue to fight, to shift the country to renewable energy. But it was a somber moment for the hundreds of people who worked at the plant, some following multiple generations of family members before them, who benefited from the good-paying jobs.
When the plant was running at full capacity, the 775-foot-tall stacks were the third-largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the nation, but the coal-burning days for the station ended last year as utilities decided to purchase cheaper power from natural-gas plants and renewables like solar.
Now the stacks will no longer linger in the background of tourists’ photos at the famous Antelope Canyon slot canyons and Lake Powell.
The coal plant, and mine 80 miles away that fed it, employed about 750 people before operations began to wind down two years ago, and nearly all of the workers were Navajo and Hopi.
Hundreds of people lined the highways and cliff sides outside Page on Friday to watch the demolition, which sent a huge plume of dust creeping across the landscape.
Among those who braved the freezing morning temperatures to watch the demolition was Melanie Howard of Kaibito, who teaches Navajo language and culture to third and fourth graders in Tuba City, about 80 miles away.
“This is going to be part of my lesson plan,” she said sitting on a rock a few miles from the plant waiting for the detonation.
She offered students extra credit to watch the event.
“This is Navajo culture,” she said.
Howard’s son worked as a welder at the power plant, and her daughter was a pipe fitter there. Both now need to travel from the region for work. Howard ticks off several other family members who worked at the plant.
Besides the jobs, the plant, mine and railroad between them are landmarks for the people living in the region. Howard said she often woke to the sound of the early morning trains, using them as an alarm clock.
“This is a landmark,” she said of the emissions stacks. “When you drive in from Big Water (Utah), you see it and you know you are close to home.
But environmentalists have urged the plant’s closure for years, noting its contribution to climate-warming greenhouse gasses, the impact from the coal mine on the land and water, and the other pollutants that came out of the emissions stacks creating haze over the region.
“I’m relieved,” said Hopi environmental activist Howard Dennis after the stacks toppled. “It’s been a struggle for a long time.”
Dennis, a board member of the Black Mesa Trust, made the long drive from Second Mesa to watch the demolition.
“I don’t feel remorse,” he said. “I do feel for the people of Page.”
Dennis said his group and others have long urged officials to develop more renewable solar and wind in the region, and the demolition of the plant should signal a turning point in that direction.
Plant helped develop Page
The plant site is on Navajo land just outside the city of Page, which is perhaps better known today for its tourism industry that lodges and feeds people visiting Lake Powell, the Grand Canyon and other parts of the scenic region.
Construction of the coal plant helped the Page population grow after construction of the Glen Canyon Dam finished in the 1960s. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation had established Page as a work camp to build the dam.
The Navajo Generating Station was built to power pumps that move water uphill from the Colorado River to Phoenix and Tucson in the Central Arizona Project canal. The U.S Bureau of Reclamation, Salt River Project, Arizona Public Service Co., Tucson Electric Power, NV Energy and Los Angeles Department of Water and Power all shared its power, which it began producing in 1974.
Los Angeles ended its participation in the plant before the remaining utilities voted to close the plant in 2017 in favor of cheaper power from natural-gas fired plants.
The canal also has begun getting some of its power from solar in the absence of the coal plant.
Demolition only part of large job
“We saw an epic event,” said Gary Barras, director of major projects for SRP, as dust from the stacks still lingered in the air Friday. “Today was really a major milestone for our project.”
The original stacks were replaced in the 1990s to accommodate emission controls, and because the new stacks were built right next to the originals, the older ones couldn’t be knocked over with detonations. Workers instead chipped away at them with jackhammers for weeks, grinding them down to just over 200 feet in height. The remnants of those original stacks were demolished earlier this year.
“This time it took less than a minute,” Barras said of the demolition.
A company called Tetra Tech Inc. is in charge of the decommissioning, and Independence Excavating Inc. of Ohio and Dykon Blasting Corp. of Oklahoma were brought in for Friday’s project.
Next to be destroyed are the three boiler buildings, each about 230 feet tall, which are scheduled to come down in March, Barras said.
About 100 to 150 people work on the plant decommissioning at a time, depending what work is being done, he said.
SRP estimates it will cost about $150 million to return the 1,000 acres of Navajo land to a condition something like it was before 48 million pounds of coal were burned there every day for more than 40 years.
Sometime by the fall of 2023, everything should be returned to its natural state, except for the buildings, power lines, water pumps and railroad the Navajo Nation wants to keep. Barras said SRP anticipates finishing early.
But the ash landfill must be monitored for three decades to ensure it isn’t leaking. That monitoring is scheduled to end Dec. 22, 2054, and the lease will end and the site is not expected to require further pollution monitoring.
SRP estimates 105,000 tons of steel will be salvaged. That’s in addition to 1,900 tons of copper and 350 tons of aluminum. Ninety percent of the material on the site will be recycled or repurposed.
The stacks will never leave the site. SRP plans to grind them to pieces and use them to rebuild natural-looking contours to the land.
Coal mine needs reclamation, too
Cleaning up after the plant is only half of the job.
Eighty miles away, it will cost an estimated $188 million to remove the coal mine infrastructure and fill in huge pits in the earth at Peabody Energy’s Kayenta Mine on Navajo and Hopi land.
When the mine closed, it left about 4 square miles, including some buildings, to be reclaimed. The company has reclaimed some previously mined lands over the years. The massive pits at the mine stretch for miles as heavy equipment has followed the underground coal seams over the years.
The U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, which permits the mine, requires the reclamation to approximate the original contours of the land and be suitable habitat for wildlife, grazing livestock and plants, including species that have cultural significance to Native Americans in the region.
The U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement had concerns with Peabody’s clean-up schedule in a letter earlier this year. It noted that Peabody’s reclamation plan was deficient because it didn’t explain why the acreage being graded and top soiled in 2020 were less than those to be reclaimed in subsequent years.
Peabody declined to say how many people were working on mine reclamation at Kayenta today, only providing a statement to say the work has been delayed.
“We remain committed to restoring the land as a vital part of the mining process,” a Peabody spokesperson said this week via email. “Reclamation has been hampered this year by COVID-19 related delays and governmental restrictions.”
A report from an environmental group, Western Organization of Resource Councils, recently found that thousands of jobs across the West, including several hundred in Arizona, would be created if coal mines were not putting off reclamation projects for shuttered mines.
The report showed that as many as 200 of the more than 300 people who previously worked at the Kayenta Mine could be working full time to remediate the land.
Nicole Horseherder, director of the Navajo community and environmental organization Tó Nizhóní Ání, said it was frustrating to see the pits remain on the landscape while people remain out of work.
“They are doing no job at all,” Horseherder said Friday, adding that she was fearful Peabody would not fulfill its obligations.
“Or they will try to do some cleanup, but they won’t do a really thorough and robust cleanup,” she said.
Horseherder said she almost didn’t watch Friday’s demolition, until her children urged her to.
“It’s actually my children who said, ‘Hey, you’ve been doing this work for a long time, why don’t you just go and watch,'” she said. “I watched it not feeling particularly excited or happy, and not feeling sad. It more or less just felt like something that needed to happen. At least there was a sense of closure … I feel like this can only open the door to other opportunities, and another way of doing work on the Nation, and another way of life.”