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  • Writer's pictureTribes Team

A Seven-Point Tribal Review of Benefits from the National Economic Transition Platform for Tribes

The now closed Navajo Generating Station

From the view of Tribes who depend on Coal Mines and Power Plants

A Review of the National Economic Transition Platform

Review by TribeAwaken.Com

Draft 10-12-20

Tribal communities are unique in that even after closures of high revenue producing power plants and coal mines on their lands and loss of hundreds of jobs, they do not plan to pick up and move to another place.

Tribal communities such as Hopi, Navajo, and Crow are being impacted by the transition away from coal fired power generation to more economical alternatives. In northern Arizona, in Navajo and Hopi, many families were very proud to have a son or a daughter with a good-paying job from which many benefited. In tribal communities, a bread winner such as miner or welder provided for the extended family, which in many instances include the family, parents, and grandparents. Over the years, more than 800 hard-working Navajo and Hopi built and ran the Navajo Generating Station and the Black Mesa coal mines. The jobs paid significantly higher than any others in the area, providing for an affluent life for many families.

At the higher decision levels of tribal government and the grassroots activist levels, as well, concerns have persisted since the beginning of those now-decommissioned projects around the fairness of the rates paid to the tribes for land, coal, and water. There were concerns over the environmental impacts of emissions, pollution, and over pumping of pristine aquifer water even over how the land had been secured from some of the most traditional native homesteads in the United States. Over time impacts became visible, ranging from air pollution to decreased underground water levels due to the pumping of over 1.4 billion gallons annually of aquifer water for coal slurry. Yet, for over 40 years, the plant and mines operated until competition from more economically viable energy sources finally brought them to an end. Coal-powered electricity can no longer compete with renewable energy and natural gas.

With the closures of the plant and the mine in 2019, communities and people have been left with a very large void in their economic lives. The tribal governments also are left with millions of dollars of losses in annual revenue, more than 90% revenue loss to Hopi alone. Governments did very little to plan for the transition of their economies. Still, even with the hole created in revenue and jobs, no one is going to move away permanently. Life goes on and people are adjusting, knowing that opportunities abound and the time for transition is now.

Recently, a coalition of 80 folks including coal-field community leaders, economic development organizations, tribal professionals, and renewable energy companies worked together over the course of a year to create a national economic transition platform to guide transition and invest in the best economic development strategies to ensure former coalfield communities stay resilient.

The tribal communities facing closures of mines or power plants or not planning to relocate and will remain rooted because there is so much already invested physically, spiritually, and emotionally in place, and parents want their children to honor their heritage by maintaining ties to the land and to raise their families there. For example, in the Navajo culture, when a child is born, the parent(s) secure the child's umbilical cord to their traditional home area. This is done so as the child grows he or she will always have roots in their home area and eventually return. Navajo families’ roots are to the land, generations of extended family, traditions of sheepherding and dry-farming subsistence, ceremonial areas, and simple, sustainable life.

The immediate need is for community and tribal leaders who have or are about to be affected by closures of mines and power plants to:

1. Learn about the opportunities of transition and what this platform provides;

2. Ensure best thinking input regarding how the tribes can best benefit from transition from activation of this platform;

3. Speak to their congressional delegation to ensure that much of this platform is adopted.

The seven-point National Economic Transition Platform and its importance to tribes:


Platform# 1: Investing in local leaders. Local leaders within the community who care deeply and have the ability to influence others will have the greatest impact. Local leaders are community leaders, non-profit leaders, teachers, traditional speakers, business owners, youth and elders. They need to understand the best practices for economic development, how to develop a community-guided transition plan, diversification strategies, building opportunities for small home-based businesses, especially cultural-oriented types such as food, arts, and lodging enterprises. Local leadership empowers communities, which allows communities in turn to continue to improve. As an example, in our home area of the Navajo Nation where we are having to transition quickly off coal mines and power plants, opportunities for tourism, retail and renewable energy abound. We need to know how to take advantage of that from start to full buildout. The Navajo Nation has 110 chapters making it one of the largest tribal governments in North America and each chapter has local leaders who have the inherent ability to alter decision-making for the better when it comes to creating infrastructure. Their skills can and must be developed around innovation and education that will result in a more resilient community. As it stands, many local leaders haven’t fully acquired the skills that will enable them to achieve a diversified economy, a circumstance that leads to less community involvement, less community development, less infrastructure activity, and less revenue for the community. Investing in local leaders will create progress.


Platform # 2: Adopting restorative economic development as key part of economic transition. This platform calls for added attention to native/indigenous people and communities of color. Local farmers markets and grocery stores can be developed for ranchers and farmers, many of whom still adhere wisely to time-tested and healthy techniques from generations before. By imitating the efficiency of nature and sticking to their traditional roots, communities can effectively transform their economy. But tribes need to enhance existing businesses, attract new businesses, and encourage the growth of new businesses. In some cases, instead of focusing just on bringing in new gas stations or shopping centers, it would be beneficial to help local entrepreneurs expand, whether they be farmers, sheepherders, herb collectors, wood haulers, or traditional weavers. Keeping economic growth local, organic, and adhering to traditional lifestyle will pay off. Funds could be set up to support businesses and small-business loans would help start up new enterprises. Another factor to consider in this process is the impact of COVID-19. New guidelines would have to be established to keep vendors and customers - requiring masks to be worn, setting up hand-sanitizing stations, creating outdoor dining stations, adding safe-operations training, and switching to a cashless system of payment.


Platform # 3: Developing workforce around the transition to the renewable energy nature has to offer. Many workers have been displaced by the shutdown of power plants and coal mines on tribal lands, but with an efficient workforce development program, those people can develop the tools and skills they need to succeed. Decommissioning the power plants and coal mines actually creates jobs because things have to be taken apart such as water-intake facilities, transport mechanisms, draglines, and smoke-stacks. There are laws within the Navajo Nation that were intended to make sure Navajo members have the opportunity to work under Navajo preferences when hiring and there’s also the Navajo Business Opportunity Act that provides a clear process to assure contractual preference to Navajo owned companies. In many instances, there are concerns that these statutes are not being enforced, and mostly outside companies and employees are brought in to carry out the projects. Workforce development can offer guidance to power plant owners and coal mine owners on this point, giving them the best means to help displaced workers. Offering severance or early retirement and transferring workers to a different site are some of the ways the owners can step up. Workforce development, deployed like this, will create prosperity for businesses, communities, and individuals if things are well planned. Switching mindfully to renewable resources such as wind and solar fit into our culture. Tribes have relied on Mother Earth, and all she asks in return is that we take care of her. Wind and solar are abundant in our part of the world, and there are viable means to harness them in a manner that has minimal impact on the land.


Platform # 4: Leveraging the economic benefits of land reclamation. Post-coal reclamation of the plant site and mines leads to multiyear job opportunities sustaining employment while restoring the land bac k to its former beauty. A revegetation plan can be developed and implemented to bring back vegetation native to the region. Underground water supplies will require monitoring. Full reclamation and remediation will take years to complete and will require skilled job opportunities for Native workers.


Platform # 5: Building out local social and economic infrastructure. There is much economic diversification on the Navajo reservation already, but more guidance is needed to encourage growth and development. Investing in infrastructure can bring water to community housing and building solar systems can bring electricity to families. Enhancing broadband on the reservation would benefit education, commerce, and life in general (especially with schools switching to online learning due to the COVID-19 situation). Many communities put on festivals, rodeos, basketball tournaments, and sports leagues to bring in additional revenue, and these events usually have sponsors from local businesses and individuals. The Navajo Generating Station was one such major sponsor, but other means of support can be created to ensure that these events can expand and diversify. Social infrastructure is also important in that it helps people sustain cultural cognizance and benefit economically from it. Culture-based businesses such as traditional-food catering, arts and crafts stores, rug-weaving classes, and sheepherding are not always recognized or supported, but they are powerful vehicles for economic benefit.


Platform# 6: Ensuring that tribal communities are not left holding the liabilities if bankruptcy of mines and power companies occurs. This is not a big threat in the Southwest but tribes have suffered similar historical events with uranium mines, underground storage tanks for gas, and uranium tilling areas. Many of these projects were abandoned and there was never full reclamation because it is not a high priority to assist tribal communities in reclamation. For example, uranium mining in Western Navajo has taken decades for clean-up to happen and for funding to come in. Furthermore, ensuring that bonds are required by mining companies on tribal land is critical. A lot of states don't have jurisdiction when it comes to a project on tribal land, so it is important for federal agencies to ensure that companies are financially strong. Mining nowadays is a tenuous and dying industry. It is questionable how coal mining could survive. There are companies that want to exit the industry and some that want to enter into the industry. If there is a company selling a mine, it is important that those similar liabilities are given to the new owners. Native people have the most experience of what can happen. For instance, we still have pipelines and pump stations sitting on tribal land, and an out of commision railroad that is falling apart.


Platform # 7: Better coordination and access to funding for tribes. There are many different sources of funding for tribes that aren't available for other communities. For instance, there is tribe specific funding from the Department of Energy, the Economic Development Administration, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Department of Agriculture, and the Administration for Native Americans. There's funding for tribes, but none that are coordinated around communities that have suffered power plant and coal mine closures. Due to cultural ties, people aren't going to move so there's a need for economic transition. Furthermore, a federal task force that is put together in office has to focus on assistance to tribes. But, a part of the challenge is that things are scattered and tribal communities are faced with a myriad of issues created by COVID-19. Due to closures of power plants and coal mines, it is difficult to access federal grants. With better focus, sources of funding can be identified. As tribes start working through plans of diversification, different types of projects such as utility scale solar or retail shopping centers become a possibility. The focus will be around infrastructure, increasing sewage capacities, water lines, upgrading housing, and the desire for unique types of bond financing with retail centers. It is important for national entities that understand the tribes, understand the communities, and understand the tribal government plan to figure out how to support those projects. It is incumbent to ensure that the projects are done according to their best practice and that there's community engagement. The goal is to expand the economy and transition to new types of industry. There is a desire for local ownership, tribal government co-ownership, and real community benefits in terms of local revenue. Groups that are being funded need to be evaluated to ensure that there are community benefits, there is local preference in hiring, and there is real revenue going to tribes and communities to protect them.

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