Important Chapter in Southwest Environmental History Ends

The Mohave Generating Station | Photo: Alan Stark/Flickr/Creative Commons License

The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) closed a chapter of the Southwest's environmental history Wednesday, as it voted unanimously to devote proceeds from closing a polluting desert coal-fired power plant to promote renewable projects to benefit the Hopi and Navajo nations.

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The vote concerned cash raised by the sale of surplus sulfur dioxide emissions allowances accrued by Southern California Edison after the utility shut down its 1,580-megawatt Mohave Generating Station in Laughlin, Nevada in 2005.

The Mohave station was the terminus of an infamous coal slurry pipeline that itself was the center of one of the most intractable environmental battles of the 1980s and '90s. Coal mined from beneath Black Mesa on the Navajo and Hopi reservations was ground to gravel, mixed with 3.3 million gallons of water pumped each day from a local desert aquifer, and piped 273 miles to Laughlin to be burned at the Mohave plant.

It was a bad situation, replete with serious violations of human rights, and I've written extensively about the issue here. And once the coal made it to Laughlin, it was dried out and burned in a plant that filled the Colorado River Valley with toxic smoke. Locals relate stories of days the skies stayed the color of chocolate.

Despite years of legal efforts by both SCE and the pro-coal Hopi Tribal Council to keep the plant, mine, and slurry line in operation, traditional and environmental groups eventually forced Mohave's closure. The plant was demolished over the course of several months in 2011 and 2012. Here's the stack going down in March 2011:

And then the rest of the plant: (Explosion at around 4:20.)

The Navajo and Hopi suffered serious economic harm both from mining operations and from loss of jobs following the mines' closure. When the Mohave plant closed in December 2005, Southern California Edison -- 58 percent owner of the plant -- suddenly had extra sulfur dioxide emissions credits it had needed to keep Mohave compliant with the Acid Rain Cap and Trade program. SCE's sale of those allowances generates income.

CPUC's decision Wednesday will send that income into a revolving fund to finance projects that make renewable energy's benefits available to the Navajo and Hopi people. The decision is a victory for Native rights groups like the Black Mesa Trust that have advocated for precisely this destination for SCE's sulfur dioxide money for the last several years.

"Today's decision affirms the need to offer some opportunity to those who have sacrificed so much for Southern Californians to enjoy decades of cheap power," said Grand Canyon Trust's Roger Clark. "We are humbled to join Navajo and Hopi leaders in celebrating what at long last is an inkling of environmental justice."

Whether the projects funded will truly benefit the Navajo and Hopi, or simply continue the tradition of harnessing reservation resources to provide Californians with energy by promoting utility-scale solar and wind on the Arizona desert, remains to be seen.

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About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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