Five decades ago, the US Senate Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs held a remarkable hearing. It was notable because it was held in Albuquerque, not Washington, D.C., because of its subject matter, “Problems of Electrical Power Production in the Southwest,” but mostly because of the impassioned testimony delivered by a diverse array of witnesses from the region.
I came across the transcripts for the hearing while doing research for an article for Sierra about what I call the Big Breakdown of coal that is in progress nationwide, dealing a big blow to the economies of places like Farmington, New Mexico, which has two gargantuan coal plants just down the road. At the time of the hearings, the Big Buildup of coal power plants across the Colorado Plateau was underway, with the Four Corners Power Plant churning out electricity and a plume of black smoke on Navajo land in northwestern New Mexico.
What struck me about the testimony was that it was mostly made by prominent community, state, and tribal leaders, and that by and large they expressed disdain and horror over what the power plant was doing to the air, the water, the land, and the people. “New Mexicans were shocked beyond measure when the Mercury astronauts reported from their capsule that the only evidence of man’s earthly existence noticeable from outer space was the cloud of black pollution rising from the smokestacks of the power plant in the Four Corners region,” said US Rep. Manuel Lujan, a Republican and the uncle of current New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham. “In those few minutes New Mexico changed from a symbol of healthful atmospheric purity to an international villain as the largest air polluter on the globe. But it is not necessarily our international image that concerns us; it is the health of our children — of all of our people.”
Just two decades earlier, the home of this smoke-spewing behemoth was a quiet, agricultural region, and had been for millennia.
Three rivers come together here — the Navajo, or Diné, call it Totah, meaning “Between the Waters — among low cliffs of white sandstone, and the bottomlands bordering the streams provide flat and fertile areas for crops and plenty of sunshine. That’s what drew the Diné and, before them, the Pueblo people, who lived in the region for centuries before finally migrating south and east to the pueblos along the Rio Grande, along with Acoma, Hopi, and Zuni. And that’s what drew the first white settlers in the late 1800s. By the turn of the century tens of thousands of fruit trees were producing peaches and apricots and cherries and apples in and around the small town. The rail line that stretched up to Durango, about 50 miles to the north, was called the Red Apple Flyer after its primary cargo, which was sent to Denver, Chicago, and even Europe.
If geography, a steady supply of water, and a temperate climate had fated Farmington to be an agricultural hotspot, geology had different plans. Farmington sits near the center of the San Juan Basin, a 10,000-square-mile dish-like feature that for millions of years lay under and beside a vast, shallow inland sea, the shorelines of which advanced and retreated over the millennia. During the Cretaceous period, some 75 million years ago, the climate was warm and wet. Sultry, fecund swamps lined the seashore. Big bugs fluttered through the verdant canopy while possum-like marupiala, crocodilian scutes, and dinosaurs — from the “Bisti Beast,” a horned-headed tyrannosaurus-like creature to the Dineobellator notohesperus, a terrifyingly quick relative of the velociraptor — cruised through the shade among shallow, brackish ponds.
The ancient flora decomposed and decayed and was converted by time and pressure into a broad band of coal in what is now known as the Fruitland formation. That coal fueled the 19th century invasion of the West, the locomotives that pulled the Red Apple Flyer, and the machinery of the mines and sawmills that ravaged the surrounding landscape. “Coal is the fuel of the present,” crowed the author of a 1906 US Geological Survey report on the coal fields of the West, “and so far as can be seen, will continue to lead … for a long time to come.”
But geology had also planted in the San Juan Basin the seed of coal’s ultimate demise as the fuel of choice. As dinosaurs plodded around on the shore, billions of tiny sea creatures were dying and settling to the seafloor, getting mixed in with sediment carried in and deposited by huge rivers that flowed through the tropical landscape. The critters morphed into a mix of hydrocarbons — oil and methane — that are now tangled up in fossilized sediment, or sandstone and shale. Methane, or natural gas, is so abundant in the region that it seeps out of the earth unbidden and often built up in residents’ water wells and in coal mines, occasionally to calamitous effect.
Eventually people realized that this nuisance gas could be put to use, and the first commercial natural gas well in the San Juan Basin was drilled near Aztec, about a dozen miles from Farmington, in 1921. Oil was found on the Navajo Nation near the current site of Four Corners Power Plant at about the same time. More wells were drilled, pipelines were built, and a natural gas boom was on — as was the first War on Coal. Diesel locomotives pushed the coal-fired steam engines into the museums, and new highways and trucks forced railroads to abandon hundreds of miles of lines. When the bounty of the New Mexico and Texas natural gas booms spread via pipelines, homeowners switched to gas for cooking and heating, finally doing away with coal’s clinkers, stokers, and caustic smoke. Hydropower dominated the West’s power grids. New Mexico’s coal production fell almost to zero, and by the early sixties King Coal had not only been dethroned, but was headed for the dustbin of history, like whale blubber, steam-powered tractors, and the telegraph.
Or so it seemed. Yet, what coal lacked in usefulness it made up for in political heft. After all, the industry’s captains had been raking in profits for decades, and they had plenty of cash for lobbying, to fuel coal-friendly politicians’ campaigns, and to wage a marketing bid to imbue their fuel with symbolism and mythology. Coal is not just coal, the proto-branders argued. It’s abundant, reliable, and deserves a seat in the pantheon of American culture, alongside cowboys, guns, big automobiles, and even freedom. Besides, coal lends itself better to capitalism than, say, harnessing the flow of falling water or wind. There’s simply more money to be made, and coal — and the workers who labor to tear it out of the earth — are easier to control.
The mythology seeped into policymaking. In Colorado, which was the West’s leading coal producer up until the 1940s, lawmakers required public institutions to heat with coal, and the coal industry joined forces with environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, to try to block new hydroelectric dams from being built along the Colorado River. Congress created the Office of Coal Research to “encourage and stimulate the production of coal in the United States.”
Meanwhile, vertically integrated, monopolistic electric utilities, in cahoots with the coal industry and the federal government, set about to manufacture demand for their product. Utilities employed the likes of Reddy Kilowatt and Miss Electra, “a charming personality you will like,” to help customers better understand the “miracle power medium … electricity,” and to convince them that their contentment depended upon them possessing electric blankets, security lights, carving knives, can openers, and, especially, energy-guzzling air-conditioners. Utah Power and Light served as a de facto Chamber of Commerce for its home state, waging ratepayer-funded marketing campaigns to attract big industry — new customers — to Salt Lake City. Arizona utilities subsidized sprawl by offering to extend power lines for free or at a low cost and offered deep discounts on “security lights.” General Electric teamed up with utilities — and Ronald Reagan — on the Live Better Electrically campaign. Public Service Company of New Mexico gave an electric blanket to everyone who bought an electric dryer. And every utility had an upside-down rate structure which incentivized power-gluttony. Power companies wrote off advertising expenses as a cost, which was then added to the consumer’s bill.
The federal Bureau of Reclamation — projecting a 3,000 percent increase in demand for the “universal low-cost servant, electricity,” — released a roadmap for the West’s power grid that called for the construction of dozens of giant generators in rural areas that would send juice hundreds of miles across high-voltage transmission lines to burgeoning urban areas. The Bureau, the nation’s dam-builder, said that this new power network only could run on coal, not hydroelectric power, natural gas, nuclear, or wind.
Utilities across the Southwest teamed up to create a cabal called WEST, or Western Energy Supply and Transmission Associates. They then set out to manifest the 1952 Bureau of Reclamation blueprint with what later became known as the Big Buildup, the first phase of which included the construction of six massive coal-fired power plants and accompanying mines across the Colorado Plateau, which would then ship power hundreds of miles to rapidly growing Los Angeles, San Diego, Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Albuquerque across high-voltage lines. Utilities would be able to produce large amounts of cheap power without running afoul of local and state air quality regulations.
Not only did the growing supply of cheap power — and air-conditioning and water pumping — help the population of the Southwest’s cities soar, but the marketing caused the average American’s electricity consumption to grow four-fold between 1946 and 1968. “We are, in short, on an energy binge,” Harvey Mudd, Director of the Santa Fe-based Central Clearing House told the congressional committee in 1971, “which, like all binges, can only end in disaster.”
That disaster turned out to be the Four Corners Power Plant, the first of the six to go online. It and its accompanying Navajo Mine were constructed about 15 miles west of Farmington in the early 1960s by a consortium of utilities led by Arizona Public Service, which supplies electricity to most of Arizona, and Utah Construction & Mining Co, a subsidiary of Kennecott, a global mining firm. The plant sprouted over just a few years on the edge of the Navajo Nation, atop the Fruitland formation. Jack Reeves, vice-president at Utah Construction & Mining Co., called the 31,000-acre site next to the Chaco River a “harsh and unproductive landscape” — at least until his company transformed it into something useful.
But just as the construction cast aside Navajo families who had lived and grazed their sheep and horses on that land for years, so did Reeves’ assessment discount the history and culture that had played out on the landscape for millennia. Construction of the mine, plant, and accompanying reservoir, Morgan Lake, destroyed and covered up remains of dozens of cultural sites, dating from Puebloan times through the present. A reminder of what was lost — a Chaco-era Hogback Great House — sits just two miles away from the eerily green waters of the plant’s evaporation ponds.
The relatively sparse population, along with the dearth of environmental regulations, allowed the mine and plant largely to be built under the radar. But once it started churning out juice, and pollution — to the tune of over 400 tons of particulate matter per day, along with sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and mercury — no one could miss the behemoth.
And that’s why Congress came to Albuquerque to hold hearings. Lujan was joined by the state’s governor, attorney general, community organizers, and environmental activists — including a part-time fire-lookout and freelance writer named Edward Abbey — in asking for a moratorium on any additional power plant construction, at the very least until the cumulative impacts of all the new plants be considered. Why, they collectively asked, should the people and landscapes and waters of the Four Corners Country be burdened to run the neon of Las Vegas and the air conditioners of Phoenix?
“The problems of the production of power on the Colorado plateau have been compounded by an encyclopedic ignorance of environmental consequences, bureaucratic ineffectiveness, and lack of focus to mitigate the national thirst for energy,” said Brant Calkin, Chairman of the Rio Grande Chapter of the Sierra Club. “Advertising for the purpose of increasing energy consumption should be banned.”
“A few years ago we had no smog in New Mexico. Today, our beautiful skies are hazy,” said Benny Atencio, the chairman of the All Indian Pueblo Council of New Mexico. “I don’t have to be an expert to see that the first victims of the manmade environmental crisis will be the American Indians.”
Peterson Zah, a Navajo community organizer who would later serve as tribal chairman, summed up the WEST plan in the early days of its realization:
“The formula is very simple and politically sound. Indian land, Indian coal, and Indian water will generate Indian power. The power will be shipped across Indian lands to Albuquerque, Phoenix, and Los Angeles. The cities will get more and more power at no cost to their environment. The result will be Indian pollution. But why should Indians be forced to suffer the consequences of the American public’s power madness? If the cities must have more power, let them put up with the filth which their power-greed produces.“
To be sure, the tribes did get a return in the form of royalties, which is really a euphemism for the payment for the privilege of pillaging a landowner’s resources. For the Navajo Mine next to the Four Corners plant, and for the Black Mesa mines that fed the Mojave and Navajo plants, the Navajo Nation and Navajo and Hopi tribes, respectively, were paid only about 2 to 6 percent of the selling price for their coal. It would be years before the rate was on par with what miners pay to pull oil, gas, and coal from federal land — a still piddly 12.5 percent — meaning that the tribes were shorted hundreds of millions of dollars.
The testimony just kept coming.
Sen. Joseph Montoya New Mexico: “This series of facilities is providing great amounts of electric power to a number of western metropolitan areas. It is also dumping more air pollutants on the Four Corners region than falls on New York City in a single day. Yet this is but the start.” The existing plants plus planned plants, strip mines, transmission lines coal slurry pipelines, he added, “combine to portend almost unprecedented environmental degradation. Everyone lives downstream or downwind from someone else, and we had better come to immediate grips with the realities of these statements.”
David L. Norvelle, New Mexico Attorney General: “The vast coal reserves underlying the Navajo and Hopi reservations offer a potential energy source unequaled for the production of electricity. But those same coal beds also are potentially the source of the worst air pollution problem in America.” He said that Mesa Verde park rangers had been forbidden from talking about the coal plant’s pollution with park visitors (the park sits just north of the power plants). “If the entire Southwest is not to turn into another Los Angeles, we need enlightened Interior officials to protect us. It seems rather sad to me that the beautiful State of New Mexico is to be sacrificed to give Los Angeles and Phoenix more air conditioners and Las Vegas more neon signs.”
Harvey Mudd, director of the Central Clearing House, an environmental lobbying group: “As recently as 10 years ago no one thought it necessary that a household have an electric toothbrush, lawn mower, pencil sharpener, carving knife, garage door, can opener. Madison Avenue has persuaded many of us … that the housewife who is without an electric can opener is undergoing hardship. … An irony of this situation is that as more electricity is generated by the burning of fossil fuels, there is more and more justification for an artificial environment, because the air outside is not fit to breathe.”
Eliot Porter, photographic chronicler of the Southwest’s wonders, in a letter: “The biggest polluters are the power producers — the utility consortium — and their ancillary coal strip mining associates. They plan a large proliferation in the four-state area of huge coal fired plants to supply electricity mostly for California where this new supply of power is advertised as smog free. Smog free for Californians but not for Southwesterners. These same plants would be outlawed in Los Angeles, but the operators, nevertheless, protest the application of effective emission control on the grounds of cost and feasibility.”
Even Edward Abbey wrote a letter: “I live in Kanab, Utah, and make my living as a freelance writer and fire lookout for the Park Service at North Rim, Grand Canyon. I first worked at North Rim in 1961. In the ten years since I have witnessed personally the steady degradation of the quality of air in northern Arizona. For example, it was always easy, ten years ago, to see the San Francisco Mountains near Flagstaff from my post at the North Rim. Now, except after storms, these mountains are usually obscured by haze and smog.”
Air pollution and outright theft were just the beginning. Abbey despaired over the devastation wreaked by strip mining. Others pointed to the vast amounts of water that would be taken from the Colorado and San Juan Rivers to be used for cooling and cleaning each plant. And it would take 1 billion gallons of groundwater annually, sucked from aquifers under Navajo and Hopi land, to slurry coal through a 275-mile pipeline from Black Mesa to the Mojave plant near Laughlin, Nevada.
But the impassioned rhetoric fell on deaf ears. After Four Corners came Mojave, Navajo Generating Station near Lake Powell, Huntington in Utah, and San Juan Generating Station, just across the river from Four Corners. They all had better pollution control systems than Four Corners did initially, but together they still kicked out thousands of tons of pollutants along with tens of millions of tons of planet-warming carbon dioxide each year, leaving the Four Corners Region to appear as if it had once again been inundated by a vast sea, only instead of water it was comprised of smog. Only the largest of all those slated to be built, the 5,000-megawatt Kaipairowitz plant, which would have sat on the western shore of Lake Powell, eating up coal from land that was later included in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, was not constructed.
The beneficiaries of this plunder could be found to the west and south, where an abundance of cheap power lights up the neon of Las Vegas and the air-conditioners in Phoenix, while the Colorado River water pushed across the desert by pumps powered by the Navajo Generating Station’s electricity enabled Arizona’s suburbs to sprawl into the desert, enriching the operators of the Southwest’s growth machine: real estate developers, mass-production homebuilders, the automotive industry, the corporate shareholders, the ratepayers and the executives. Arizona Public Service, majority owner of Four Corners Power Plant, raked in half a billion dollars in profit last year. Peabody’s CEO is paid $20 million a year to run a company that just emerged from bankruptcy.
Now the coal plants are going down. Mojave closed in 2005, Navajo Generating Station shut down at the end of last year, San Juan Generating Station is slated to close in 2022, and Four Corners is likely to go dark by 2031. The Big Breakdown is upon us, and already the air in the region is cleaner — aside from all the wildfire smoke — than it was a year ago. But it will be decades for the region to heal from all the wounds that have been inflicted. In the meantime, a lot of people are being put out of work, government coffers are going dry, economies are withering, and the corporate bigwigs are still profiting.
Westmoreland, the owner of the San Juan Coal Mine near Farmington, paid out some $10 million in bonuses to its top executives in the years leading up to its 2018 bankruptcy filing. Then, even as it tried to weasel its way out of paying health benefits to retirees, the company handed out retention pay to 243 “valued employees” who are “critical to the Debtors’ business operations, efforts to preserve and maximize stakeholder value, and ability to implement the Debtors’ restructuring strategies.” The “valued employees” were mostly upper-level office workers and included a handful of mining engineers and three supervisors, but no actual miners. Just this week, the company laid off several miners at its San Juan Mine.
In closing, I leave you with the words of Peterson Zah, from 1971:
“The truth is that the ever-increasing use and demand for power is a sickness. Something has gone wrong somewhere with the American public’s value. This destructive, even suicidal, trend must be reversed at once for the sake of everyone, white men and Indians alike. But if the trend is not to be reversed, it should be the users of the power that suffers the consequences. The users should produce their own power in their own backyard and live with the resulting ruination of their own environment. Let the Indians alone. If the environmental destruction of parts of America is all but irreversible, as some scientists maintain, at least the Indians of the American Southwest may escape this fate and be able to survive an ecological disaster which was not their doing.“
Jonathan P. Thompson is the author of Behind the Slickrock Curtain: A Project Petrichor Environmental Thriller (Lost Souls Press, 2020) and River of Lost Souls: The Science, Politics, and Greed Behind the Gold King Mine Disaster (Torrey House Press, 2018).