Power Plants on Indian Reservations Get No Break on Emissions Rules

Four of the dirtiest plants, which sit on Native American soil, were expecting more lenient goals under the Clean Power Plan, but the EPA shifted gears.

By Naveena Sadasivam, Insideclimate News

The Navajo Generating Station is one of the country's dirtiest power plants. Credit: Wikipedia.
The Navajo Generating Station is one of the country’s dirtiest power plants. Credit: Wikipedia.

Four Western power plants that emit more carbon dioxide than the 20 fossil-fuel-fired plants in Massachusetts thought they would be getting a break under the Obama administration’s new carbon regulations––until the final rule ended up treating them just like all the other plants in the country.

The plants are located on Native American reservations, and under an earlier proposal, they were required to reduce emissions by less than 5 percent. But the final version of the rule, released earlier this month, has set a reduction target of about 20 percent.

A majority of the reductions are to come from two mammoth coal plants on the Navajo reservation in Arizona and New Mexico—the Navajo Generating Station and the Four Corners Power Plant. They provide power to half a million homes and have been pinpointed by the Environmental Protection Agency as a major source of pollution––and a cause for reduced visibility in the Grand Canyon.

These two plants alone emit more than 28 million tons of carbon dioxide each year, triple the emissions from facilities in Washington state, fueling a vicious cycle of drought and worsening climate change. The two other power plants are on the Fort Mojave Reservation in Arizona and the Uintah and Ouray Indian Reservation in Utah.

Environmental groups have charged  that the Navajo plants are responsible for premature deaths, hundreds of asthma attacks and hundreds of millions of dollars of annual health costs. The plants, which are owned by public utilities and the federal government, export a majority of the power out of the reservation to serve homes and businesses as far away as Las Vegas and help deliver Arizona’s share of the Colorado River water to Tucson and Phoenix. Meanwhile, a third of Navajo Nation residents remain without electricity in their homes.


Tribal leaders contend that power plants on Indian land deserve special consideration.

“The Navajo Nation is a uniquely disadvantaged people and their unique situation justified some accommodation,” Ben Shelly, president of the Navajo Nation, wrote in a letter to the EPA. He contends that the region’s underdeveloped economy, high unemployment rates and reliance on coal are the result of policies enacted by the federal government over several decades. If the coal plants decrease power production to meet emissions targets, Navajos will lose jobs and its  government will receive less revenue, he said.

Many local groups, however, disagree.

“I don’t think we need special treatment,” said Colleen Cooley of the grassroots nonprofit Diné CARE. “We should be held to the same standards as the rest of the country.” (Diné means “the people” in Navajo, and CARE is an abbreviation for Citizens Against Ruining our Environment.)

Cooley’s Diné CARE and other grassroots groups say the Navajo leaders are not serving the best interest of the community. The Navajo lands have been mined for coal and uranium for decades, Cooley said, resulting in contamination of water sources and air pollution. She said it’s time to shift to new, less damaging power sources such as wind and solar.

The Obama administration’s carbon regulations for power plants aim to reduce emissions nationwide 32 percent by 2030 from 2005 levels. In its final version of the rule, the EPA set uniform standards for all fossil-fueled power plants in the country. A coal plant on tribal land is now expected to achieve the same emissions reductions as a coal plant in Kentucky or New York, a move that the EPA sees as more equitable. The result is that coal plants on tribal lands—and in coal heavy states such as Kentucky and West Virginia—are facing much more stringent targets than they expected.

The EPA has taken special efforts to ensure that the power plant rules don’t disproportionately affect minorities, including indigenous people. Because dirty power plants often exist in low-income communities, the EPA has laid out tools to assess how changes to the operation of the plants will affect emission levels in neighborhoods nearby. The EPA will also be assessing compliance plans to ensure the regulations do not increase air pollution in those communities.

The tribes do not have an ownership stake in any of the facilities, but they are allowed to coordinate a plan to reduce emissions while minimizing the impact on their economies. Tribes that want to submit a compliance plan must first apply for treatment as a state. If the EPA doesn’t approve, or the tribes decide not to submit a plan, the EPA will impose one.

Leaps and boundaries for Wyoming tribes

State battles Wind River tribes over expanded reservation and greater stake in energy management.

By Joshua Zaffos, High Country News

Riverton, Wyoming, looks like an All-American boomtown, fronted along a busy strip of hotels and fast food joints with steady traffic from industry trucks and pickups. But the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribes are arguing that Riverton is part of the Wind River Indian Reservation – and the Environmental Protection Agency agrees. That determination, now before the courts, could allow tribes to have greater involvement in energy development rules and also strike a significant win for tribes after centuries of losing ground.

A 1905 Congressional act opened nearly 1 million acres of Wind River reservation lands in central Wyoming for non-Indian homesteaders, miners and new towns. Later acts restored much of that area as part of the reservation, but 171,000 acres, including Riverton, were never officially returned to the tribes. Despite the developments, the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone, who share the reservation, say the lands have always remained under tribal ownership.

The matter boiled over in 2008 after the Wind River tribes applied to the EPA for “treatment as a state” designation under the Clean Air Act, which would allow them to implement and manage air-quality programs on their shared reservation. In a region heavily reliant on the production from thousands of oil and gas wells, the additional oversight – and a change in jurisdiction – poses some uncertainty for the industry.

The EPA approved the tribes’ request in late 2013 and, as part of the proceedings, reviewed the reservation’s boundaries. After studying historical records, the EPA announced that the disputed lands are still part of the Wind River reservation.

“It’s a big deal for the Wind River tribes and for Wyoming because jurisdiction is what sovereign governments are all about,” says Debra Donahue, professor at University of Wyoming College of Law. “It’s important for the tribes just as an affirmation that the lands are still within the reservation and they are the primary sovereigns within that territory.”

The state of Wyoming, the Wyoming Farm Bureau, and Devon Energy, one of the largest oil and gas companies in the country, all sued EPA over the outcome and asked the Tenth Circuit Appeals Court to review the decision. This month, ten other states filed an amicus brief, asking the court to fully review EPA’s boundary determination, and questioning why the agency was wading into Indian law and boundary disputes.

Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead, R, has said the EPA’s determination sets a “dangerous precedent” for administrative agency intervention in tribal boundary and state sovereignty issues. Mead has also battled the EPA – and complained of other dangerous precedents – over President Obama’s proposed stricter rules and carbon controls for coal-fired power plants, and in defense of the state’s own plan to reduce power-plant haze and improve air quality in national parks and wilderness areas, which is more lax than federal plans. Wyoming won backing from the courts on the latter issue last September, allowing coal plants to avoid installing new pollution controls.

If the appeals court upholds the EPA’s boundary designations, the state can still tax local citizens and businesses in the Riverton area. According to the Equality State Policy Center, non-Indian people would be minimally impacted, although some new tax advantages could benefit businesses. Enrolled tribal members in the extended area, however, would be under tribal jurisdiction in criminal or legal cases, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs and tribal courts would have more authority.

Under the Wind River tribe-as-state application, the tribes aren’t seeking all-out regulatory authority, but they would gain the right to monitor local air quality and to comment on regional projects that could impact environmental health. The state would maintain regulatory control over the oil and gas industry, and it’s doubtful the decision would affect energy development. Along with the rest of Wyoming, the Wind River tribes rely heavily on oil and gas for government revenues, but some homes on the reservation have hazardous drinking water, possibly linked to industry activity, and the EPA has even ordered some residents to ventilate homes when bathing or running taps.

Many observers expect the appeals court to overturn the EPA’s decision. Donahue says courts are typically reluctant to find in favor of tribes in such boundary disputes.

But one detail in the case could prove essential for the tribes’ argument: The century-old law behind the dispute didn’t set a single sum payment for the territory, like many other Indian Country purchases, but instead allowed for settlers to buy ceded lands one parcel at a time. “The U.S. Supreme Court has said that distinction is significant,” Donahue says, since it’s been interpreted to mean Congress wasn’t reducing the reservation boundary while the tribes retained an interest in the area. If the appeals court or the Supreme Court upholds that view, tribes with similar circumstances could pick up the strategy.

EPA details results of $100M Federal Effort to clean up Navajo uranium contamination

By Monica Brown, Tulalip News Writer

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced on Jan 24 that they had made significant progress on a coordinated five-year plan to address health risks posed by uranium contamination on the Navajo Nation. The plan is an invested $100 million.

Their efforts have reduced the most urgent risks to Navajo residents by remedying 34 contaminated homes, providing safe drinking water to 1825 families, and performing stabilization or cleanup work at 9 abandoned mines. Additionally, the EPA has useed the Superfund law to compel the responsible parties to make additional mine investigations and cleanups amounting to $17 million.

 “This effort has been a great start to addressing the toxic legacy of uranium mining on Navajo lands,” said Jared Blumenfeld, EPA’s Regional Administrator for the Pacific Southwest. “The work done to date would not have been possible without the partnership of the six federal agencies and the Navajo Nation’s EPA and Department of Justice.”

 The Navajo Nation encompasses more than 27,000 square miles in the Four Corners area of Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico. The unique geology of the region makes the Navajo Nation rich in uranium, a radioactive ore in high demand after the development of atomic power and weapons at the close of World War II. Approximately four million tons of uranium ore were extracted during mining operations within the Navajo Nation from 1944 to 1986. Many Navajo people worked the mines, often raising their families in close proximity to the mines and mills.

 On behalf of the Navajo people I appreciate the leadership of Rep. Henry Waxman and the members of Congress who requested a multi-agency response to the Navajo Nation’s testimony presented at the October 2007 hearing,” said Ben Shelly, President of the Navajo Nation. “While there have been accomplishments that improved some conditions, we still need strong support from the Congress and the federal agencies to fund the clean-up of contaminated lands and water, and to address basic public health concerns due to the legacy of uranium mining and milling.”

Uranium mining activities no longer occur within the Navajo Nation, but the hazards of uranium contamination remain. More than 500 abandoned uranium mine claims and thousands of mine features, such as pits, trenches and holes, with elevated levels of uranium, radium and other radionuclides still exist. Health effects from exposure to these contaminants can include lung cancer, bone cancer and impaired kidney function.

The progress is from cooperation with the Navajo Nation, together with the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the Department of Energy (DOE), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the Indian Health Service (IHS).

Read the full report here


EPA Awards $65,000 to the Comanche Tribe of Oklahoma to Improve and Protect Its Water Quality

Release Date: 12/21/2012
Contact Information: Jennah Durant or Austin Vela, 214-665-2200 or r6press@epa.gov.

(DALLAS – December 21, 2012) The Environmental Protection Agency has awarded the Comanche Tribe of Oklahoma $65,000 to provide continued support for the tribe’s water pollution control program. The funds will be used to take samples to assess surface water quality on tribal lands, compile data which may show changes over time and determine if a more thorough watershed management program is needed. Sampling data will determine whether water quality standards are being met, note any changes in the quality or condition of the tribe’s water, and provide planning tools to improve the function and health of stream ecosystems.

The mission of the EPA is to protect public health and the environment. The EPA supports efforts to improve the quality of tribal land watersheds. This cooperative spirit supports work to protect water quality that ensures the health of watersheds that cross state and tribal boundaries.

Additional Information on EPA grants is available at http://www.epa.gov/region6/gandf/index.htm

More about activities in EPA Region 6 is available at http://www.epa.gov/aboutepa/region6.html