When Marlene Fowler wakes up in Kaibeto 30 miles south of Page, she can see a yellow-green haze on the horizon. But Fowler’s not worried about the pollution. It’s her husband’s job at the Navajo Generating Station, a coal-fired power plant, that has her in a panic.
“Hopefully it doesn’t shut down,” Fowler said. “Even though they say the pollution is all this and that, it’s been there years you know.”
Fowler gets $10 an hour as a cook for the senior center but it’s her husband’s paycheck the family depends on. He’s a part-time mechanic for the power plant. Fowler says without the plant work, he’ll have to travel to various odd jobs.
“He has to be here with his kids,” Fowler said. “It’s going to cost a lot of gas and mileage on the vehicles. We don’t have transportation for him to go out to job sites. They have to pay their motels, meals and lodging.”
On Feb. 13, the Salt River Project, a Phoenix-based power company, announced that it would shut down a coal-fired power plant in three years. That’s 25 years earlier than the Navajo Nation anticipated. While environmentalists celebrate the closure, hundreds of Navajo people who rely on those jobs are devastated.
Outside the kitchen, Lorinda Bennett and her husband, who is retired from the plant, sit on the senior-center couch waiting for biscuits and gravy.
“I have two boys and three girls and a lot of grandkids,” Bennett said. “I have a daughter that’s working there and two son-in-laws working there. They’re close by. We see them almost every day.”
Bennett worries the plant shutdown will take her children and grandkids far away.
“Our kids are going to move away and our grandkids,” Bennett said. “That’s what they’re planning on. They’re already looking for another job.”
The Navajo Nation has relied on the coal industry for the last four decades. The industry and energy companies have provided hundreds of families with five-figure salaries. Ninety percent of the power-plant employees are Navajo. The revenue, taxes and royalties all make up about a third of the tribe’s operating budget and the majority of the Hopi Tribe’s budget.
SRP and other plant owners say natural gas is much cheaper and makes more economic sense. A plant closure means the coal mine that feeds the plant would also likely shut down.
Many compare the Navajo Nation to a developing country with 50 percent unemployment and increasing violent crime. There’s one police officer for every 130 square miles on the sprawling reservation.
“Crimes and people hurting one another is already here,” said Joann Secody, Kaibeto’s community service coordinator..
With more Navajos out of work, Secody worries about more people turning to a life of crime.
“I know it’s going to affect everyone,” Secody said. “It’s going to traumatize everyone because everyone’s gonna think this is it. So everyone needs to just get out of their comfort zone and go back to school.”
Coconino County Supervisor Lena Fowler agrees. Fowler has been trying to bring together three colleges from the region to build an education center in Page. She wants to give power-plant employees a reason to stay.
“These are the homeowners,” Fowler said. “These are the people that come and shop. If that dollar flow is not there, where are we going to get that? We don’t want to see business doors close.”
Fowler started work on an economic impact plan when she thought she had 25 years to prepare.
“How do we help ourselves?” Fowler said. “How do we help our children? How do we help our neighbors? How do we as a community come together to help each other to keep our population whole and families whole?”
SRP is talking to the Navajo Nation about jobs needed to dismantle and clean up the plant. The tribe is also planning to recruit new businesses to the reservation.