Communities on the Navajo and Hopi Nations are bracing for what they say will be devastating economic fallout after the owners of a coal-fired power plant in Arizona decided to close the location.
The decision announced Monday to close the Navajo Generating Station in 2019 could lead to the loss of hundreds of jobs, including at a coal mine that supplies fuel for the plant.
Hopi Tribal Chairman Herman Honanie said the tribes are concerned with the severe impact the shutdown will have on communities already struggling with rampant poverty and high unemployment rates.
"It's really going to hurt us," Honanie said. "To keep the plant open until 2019 is a little sign of relief, we are trying to think of ways we can fill the gap in revenue in two and a half years."
Honanie said the Hopi Tribe derives at least 80 percent of its revenue from the sites.
Environmentalists are calling the closure of the plant near Page an important moment and an opportunity to find new sources for jobs that are better for the environment. Jihan Gearon, executive director of the Black Mesa Water Coalition, said the plant's water pollution and heavy mining of coal hurts the environment and harms citizen health.
"We need to take this transition seriously and look at the next economy that doesn't trap the Navajo line of employment in one thing," Gearon said.
She said people shouldn't have to choose between health, the environment and jobs.
Navajo Nation Council Speaker LoRenzo Bates said the workers at the power plant have specific job experience. "You're looking at jobs that are skilled," Bates said. "The only way that a skilled worker that's in the mine can take that skill will have to be another mine — another facility."
Bates said all the stakeholders need to look at how the plant can stay open beyond 2019.
Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye said the tribe wants to keep the facility running until at least 2030 and is now looking for support from President Donald Trump, who made saving coal jobs a priority during his campaign.
"We ask the Trump administration to step in and see that NGS plant operations continue through 2044," Begaye said in a statement.
The owner of the Kayenta Mine, which supplies the plant's coal, issued a statement expressing hope that the plant could stay open beyond 2019.
"We look forward to working with current participants and future stakeholders toward a smooth transition that would allow future operations of NGS for many years to come," Peabody Energy said.
The announced plant closure comes amid a widespread transition away from coal-fired electricity, despite Trump's desire to relax regulations needed to revive the industry. Coal production suffered an 18 percent decline last year and dipped to the lowest level since 1978, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
The impending shutdown comes as two other coal mines and power plants in the Southwest scale back operations. The Four Corners Power Plant and the San Juan Generating Station, both just across the Arizona state line in New Mexico, supply customers throughout the Southwest with electricity and have long been targets of environmental groups concerned about pollution.
The owner of the Four Corners plant agreed to close part of it in 2013 due to regulatory pressures. The plant is fed by the Navajo Mine, which employs about 350 people.
The owner of the San Juan plant is on track to close two units by the end of 2017 as a result of a yearslong battle over how to best curb haze-causing pollution in the region.
The plant is fed by the adjacent San Juan Mine, which is one of the largest underground coal mines in the world and employs about 360 workers following a round of cuts last year.