The proposal from Black Mesa Water Coalition was brought to the Navajo Nation Council’s Resources and Development Committee on Dec. 4 in a meeting at the Piñon Chapter House.
The coalition is seeking permission to construct a 1-5 megawatt solar demonstration project on at least 40 acres of reclaimed land at Black Mesa Mine, which closed in December 2005.
The mine started producing coal in 1970 with a contract to serve Mohave Generating Station near Laughlin, Nev. but when Mohave closed, so did Black Mesa.
There are currently 12,805 acres that have undergone reclamation — enough land to produce 14 to 2,000 megawatts of solar electricity, said Wahleah Johns of the Black Mesa Water Coalition, which is working on the project with the environmental group Tó Nizhoni Ani.
“What we’re trying to do is make it beneficial for local communities, chapters and also residents,” she said. “These are their lands.”
The goal of this part of the project is to demonstrate how solar energy is generated and to show another possibility for local communities to generate revenue.
The area was selected because it sits at a high elevation, receives a yearly average of 330 days of sunlight, and has existing infrastructure including transmission lines, roads and water supply lines.
Among the benefits for the community would be developing an equity ownership that would generate a stream of revenue for the chapters or developing a community-controlled fund.
Johns, who is originally from the Forest Lake area, said the project is part of the coalition’s effort to build local economy initiatives.
“We’ve had a lot of research done looking into what it would look like if our communities co-owned a solar project, not just looking at the jobs, but looking at co-owning it, having an ownership stake in a project that would generate revenues for our people,” Johns said.
If the project receives the go ahead, the next step would be talking to the appropriate tribal department about the land reclamation process since the mine is owned by Peabody Western Coal Co. and it holds the leasing permit, she said.
“We’re not saying turn all the lands into solar, we’re just saying this is the potential for these lands,” Johns said, acknowledging that concerns of residents in the Peabody lease holding area.
Sitting in the audience were members from Black Mesa United, who received time for the committee to voice their opposition to the proposal.
“Don’t use us as pawns. We’re tired of supporting the Navajo Nation,” Black Mesa resident Fern Benally said, then added that the project has not received support from the Black Mesa Review Board, which is comprised of representatives from the Black Mesa, Chilchinbeto, Forest Lake, Kayenta and Shonto chapters.
The lands should be returned to the residents for their own use, she said.
“We want to wander our lands like you do,” Benally said.
Kee Yazzie, president of Black Mesa United, read to the committee a Dec. 1 position paper developed by the organization.
The group also noted there are no supporting resolutions from the impacted chapters and they would like more information about the project’s funding and potential revenue.
Another concern is that if the revenue goes directly to the tribe, there is the potential the impacted chapters and residents will not benefit.
Black Mesa United was introduced to the project in February 2010.
Although committee member Leonard Pete (Chinle) spoke in favor of the proposal, he was concerned by the “tug-of-war” among the community groups.
“I do fully support this project,” Pete said, adding the tribe should be investing in environmentally friendly ideas.
Still, he had concerns about the project and questioned how long it would take for the tribe to reclaim the land from Peabody and if there are any restrictions in place.
Committee member Leonard Tsosie (Baca-Prewitt/Casamero Lakes/Counselor/Littlewater/Ojo Encino/Pueblo Pintado/Torreon/Whitehorse Lake) agreed that Black Mesa United’s concerns should be addressed and these types of proposals should be achieved because it is community generated.
While hearing comments from local residents, the committee lost its quorum and was unable to take action.
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