Desert Rock power plant controversy heats up

A dozen scholars from a half dozen universities presented papers at SMU Saturday, at a symposium titled “Indians and Energy: Exploitation and Opportunity in the American Southwest.” Papers detailed the history, economics, cultural and social effects of the development of energy resources on Indian lands, concentrating on development of the massive Navajo Reservation that straddles four western states.

The seminar was cosponsored by the William P. Clements Center for Southwest Studies at SMU, and the distinguished School for Advanced Research of the Human Experience, at Santa Fe.

Energy development does not paint a pretty picture. Since 1800, development of Indian resources generally means value is extracted from Indian lands, but the Indians themselves make no profit, and often bear the burdens of development, especially in health damage, pollution, and hammering of social structures.

One presenter, Colleen O’Neill of Utah State, had a photograph that hit me hard. It showed two Navajos aboard an ore car from a uranium mine on the Reservation, in 1952. Neither man had any breathing protection of any kind. I worked for a decade to get compensation for victims of atomic fallout and mine radiation, on the U.S. Senate staff. And I know that the death rate from lung cancer for the uranium miners was nearly 95% when I worked the issue, 30 years ago. Those smiling men had been given a death sentence, and no one told them.

Especially after the final presentation, specifically aimed at a new proposal for another massive coal-fired electrical generating plant in an area that hosts two already, concern about the effects of energy development was clear from the symposium participants and audience.

Stakes got a lot higher Sunday morning. The Arizona Republic published a story on Desert Rock about as glowing as the proponents could hope for, pitting high unemployment rates and a lack of electricity on the Navajo Reservation against environmentalists who oppose the plant.

This post is a marker. I hope I’ll get time to write more about the seminar and the extensive findings (the School for Advanced Research will publish the papers, but that will be several months in the future). But until then, let me urge you to read the newspaper’s story, “For Navajos, Coal means survival.”

When you read the story, remember this: The employment numbers cited in the story are considerably more optimistic than any touted before; past construction on the Reservation has been difficult for Navajos to break into the work force, and imported workers generally do much of the work; it’s taken more than 50 years for Navajos to get the number of jobs they now hold at the Four Corners Plant, a fight that continues; and the sad story of the woman who died during a cold snap will tug at your heart and conscience, but you need to remember that there is no way her cold hogan will get electricity from Desert Rock; her children will still be cold if the plant is built.

More, later, I hope.

Sherry Smith and Brian Frehner did a whale of a job organizing the thing, by the way. You shoulda been there.


3 Responses to Desert Rock power plant controversy heats up

  1. […] You load 16 million tons [of radioactive and poisonous tailings], and what do you get?  A site cleaner in Moab from uranium milled a half-century ago, and a warning to those who push nuclear power for the future damn-the-cost.  There are costs. […]


  2. […] One of the photos used in one of the lectures, by Colleen O’Neill of Utah State, showed two Navajo miners outside a uranium mine during a previous uranium boom.  Neither one had a lick of protective equipment.  Underground uranium mining exposes miners to heave concentrations of radon gas, and if a miner is unprotected by breathing filters at least, there is a nearly 100% chance the miner will get fatal lung cancers. Of the 150 Navajo uranium miners who worked at the uranium mine in Shiprock, New Mexico until 1970, 133 died of lung cancer or various forms of fibrosis by 1980 ([Ali, 2003] ). […]


  3. Leah Glaser says:

    Just a correction: While I appreciate the credit, it was Colleen O’Neill of Utah State that showed that photograph you wrote about. My paper was about the REA cooperatives and NTUA. Thanks and glad you enjoyed the conference.

    Leah S. Glaser
    Central CT State University


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