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Navajo official: EPA rules threaten jobs at San Juan coal plant

More than 300 Navajo Nation jobs are at stake because of “excessively stringent and expensive” regulations the Environmental Protection Agency has proposed for the San Juan power plant, a tribal official testified Wednesday in Washington, D.C..

Stephen Etsitty, executive director of the Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency, said the federal agency’s proposal “jeopardizes the continued viability” of the plant near Farmington, N.M. That could threaten the hundreds of jobs at the power plant and its affiliated coal mine, 318 of which are held by Native American workers, he said.

Etsitty was one of six witnesses blasting the EPA for regulation that has “gotten badly off track,” according to a statement from Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee that called the hearing.

“We’ve had successful consultation and work on many issues with EPA,” Etsitty told the subcommittee. “But under the Clean Air Act it has been very difficult.”

The one witness who might have testified in support of the EPA, former regional administrator Alfredo Armendariz, backed out the day before the hearing. According to published reports, Armendariz resigned this spring after he was quoted saying the agency should “crucify” polluters as an example.

EPA officials could not say why Armendariz did not appear and they were unable to respond Wednesday to charges made in the hearing.

But Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., said in a prepared statement that the hearing was little more than “a dog-and-pony show for the cameras … designed to highlight the partial statement of a single former EPA staffer.”

“With all due respect to the witnesses who will be testifying here today, I believe that all of our time would be better served by working in a bipartisan way to enact policy that may some day actually move this country’s energy policy forward,” Rush’s statement said.

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But Etsitty testified that working with the EPA has been the problem. The EPA is required to engage in meaningful consultation with tribes when it develops regulations, but it has failed to do so, he said.

That has led to proposals like the expensive catalytic-reduction technology the EPA wants for the San Juan power plant over tribal objections, he said.

Because of the Navajo Nation’s substantial coal reserves, such rules can have a far-reaching impact on tribal sovereignty and the ability to develop natural resources and provide for tribal members. That can have a ripple effect, Etsitty testified.

“An increase in the number of unemployed on the Navajo Nation caused by the closure of the San Juan plant or the San Juan mine would result in increased demands in social services provided by the Navajo Nation and other government agencies,” he said.

Those jobs pay 2.7 times the average annual Navajo household income of $20,000, Etsitty said. The lost income would reduce spending by about $25 million per year and result in losses of nearly $1 million annually in sales taxes.

Ultimately, increased demands for services for the unemployed would further stress the tribe’s budget, diverting funds that could otherwise be spent on Navajo Nation economic development.

Both the plant and the mine are located just outside the Navajo Nation, but they have a significant economic impact on the tribal and regional economy. Any impact on San Juan would affect Navajo employees as well as the plant’s and the mine’s subcontractors and seasonal workers, Etsitty said.

Still, he said, the nation “remains hopeful that EPA will continue to improve its consultation practices in accordance with their own policies, and to complete tribal consultation.”

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courtesy Kip Malone/PNM

Navajo Nation officials say hundreds of tribal jobs are dependent on the San Juan power plant and an affiliated coal mine, but that the plant’s viability could be threatened by federal environmental regulations.