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Cleaner air at the 4 corners as 3 of 5 coal-fired generators close

3 of the 5 coal-fired power plants near the four corners are closing. This will help clear the air in the Southwest.
3 of the 5 coal-fired power plants near the four corners are closing. This will help clear the air in the Southwest.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Visitors to the 4 corners area where Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico meet are familiar with the haze that obscures the spectacular castle-like red-rock formations in the vicinity. Likewise, anyone visiting the Grand Canyon or other National Parks has been disappointed to find smog clouding the view depending on the direction of the wind. The pollution comes for massive coal-fired electric plants located in the Southwest.

The air is going to clear a little bit in 2014 because three of five coal-fired units are shutting down at one of these plants--the 4 Corners power plant in Farmington, New Mexico. The utility that operates them would rather close the plants than invest in air pollution retrofits to comply with EPA power plant regulations. The Farmington plant dates to the 1960s.

Ryan Randazzo, reporter for the Arizona Republic and AZ, reported that Vice-President of Fossil Generation for Arizona Public Service (APS), David Hansen, traveled to the Four Corners Power Plant on Monday for a ceremony with the 434 plant workers to mark the closure. APS purchased a larger stake in two remaining operating units at the plant.

The plant closing is part of the APS proposal to meet Environmental Protection Agency requirements for pollution from the plant’s five generators. Rather than pay to upgrade the three oldest units, APS closed them and paid $182 million for a larger stake in Units 4 and 5, which don’t need as much investment to meet EPA standards.

What is great news for the environment and the atmosphere is a mixed blessing for the Navajo Nation. The plant and a nearby coal mine generate about $225 million a year in economic benefits to the Navajo Nation and New Mexico economies, according to APS.

Unemployment on the reservation is about 50 percent, so the more than 800 jobs at the plant and mine are critical. More than 80 percent of the positions are held by Native Americans. The operations are responsible for about 30 percent of the Navajo Nation’s general fund.

At the same time, however, the pollution from coal-fired power plants on or near Reservations are responsible for health problems that affect Native Americans the most—a population that is less able to afford good health care to treat the asthma and other respiratory problems due to polluted air. Studies show climate change hits Native Americans harder than the population of the United States as a whole.

If a person is given the choice of a job or bad air, they will choose the bad air. To put anyone, particularly vulnerable Native Americans, in the position of being forced to make such a choice is shameful.

No layoffs are planned with this closing, however, because the 120 remaining workers from the first three units will be needed during the next three years to decommission the three closed plants. After that, the workers should all be absorbed into the larger workforce of the bigger two units that remain open according to APS.

This is a perfect opportunity to replace the power that was being generated in the three closed plants with electricity generated by solar energy. This would clean the air in the national parks, improve the health of the people in the region, and provide jobs and income for the Navajo Nation without killing them off with pollution.

Will anything this sensible happen? It is unlikely when half of the Congress is run by politicians who are either in the pockets of the fossil fuel industry, or are climate change deniers or both.

Perhaps the Navajos and the private sector can cease this opportunity and bypass the Flat-Earth Society in Washington. Perhaps.

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