What The Future Looks Like For Coal-Reliant Communities In Arizona

By Mark Brodie, Lauren Gilger, Kaely Monahan
Published: Wednesday, October 30, 2019 - 12:36pm
Updated: Tuesday, November 5, 2019 - 12:33pm

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Coverage of tribal natural resources is supported in part by Catena Foundation

NGS
Laurel Morales/KJZZ
One of the Navajo Generating Station's three 750-megawatt generators.

MARK BRODIE: With the closure of the Navajo Generating Station, many questions remain for those who rely on that station to generate jobs and energy. Coal is dying across the country as cleaner energy options become a reality, and communities are left looking for alternatives. The city of Page in northern Arizona in particular, is looking for new ways to jumpstart its economy. Here to tell us more about that and what the future looks like for coal-reliant communities is Ryan Randazzo of the Arizona Republic. Hey Ryan.

RYAN RANDAZZO: Morning.

BRODIE: So we've discussed this before, the closure of Navajo Generating Station was not a surprise. Did the community up in Page do anything to prepare as they sort of saw the writing on the wall? Were they taking steps to try to mitigate the the effects of that?

RANDAZZO: Yeah. And I think just as a normal course of business, they are trying to grow their tourism industry up there. And if they could attract a different industry to the area, I think they would. But tourism is really their sweet spot. They happen to be located near the Grand Canyon, near the Canyon lands in southern Utah, the Colorado River, Lake Powell. So even though the community's kind of small up there, they get millions of visitors every year, and they're just trying to build on that and give people a reason to stay in Page. So they saw this coming, but they were building on that industry anyhow.

Antelope Canyon
Jean Clare Sarmiento/KJZZ
Antelope Canyon on Navajo land near Page.

BRODIE: And certainly things right around there — Horseshoe Bend is right around there, then there are the slot canyons, Antelope Canyon, just north of there. Is there reason to believe that they have the resources to try to boost economy, be it marketing budgets, hotel space, restaurants, that kind of thing?

RANDAZZO: Well, they're going to feel the impact of that power plant closing regardless. It it was, several hundred well-paying jobs in the community. They're already feeling that as people relocate for other jobs with Salt River Project. So they're already seeing fewer people in town, which obviously affects the overall size of the economy, the number of kids in the schools. But they're trying to replace it. And I think they'll do pretty well compared to some other coal communities that don't have millions of people driving through town.

LAUREN GILGER: Is tourism the only option here? Do they have other industries they can build?

RANDAZZO: Well, it's tough. The same things that led to the closure of the power plant sort of prohibit them from attracting, say, a big manufacturing plant — you know, access to rail lines and natural gas and the things that you would need to, you know, bring in like a manufacturing industry. That was the same things that prohibited them from converting that coal plant to natural gas or prevent them from moving that coal to another power plant. That's why the mine has to close as well, because it's so isolated, and there's no way to get that fuel to another plant in the region that needs it.

BRODIE: In terms of the people affected here, if you work at a power plant that doesn't necessarily translate to a tourism job or some other kind of job. What what's happening for some of the folks who are losing and have lost their jobs? So Salt River Project pledged to relocate all of the workers that were up there. And there's only a handful that haven't relocated or chosen to retire or taken a job outside of the company.

RANDAZZO: So you're right. Those skills don't necessarily translate well to other industries. So Salt River Project is retraining some people for jobs in I.T. So folks that worked in some capacity at the plant need to be retrained before they're relocated. Some were able to just go to another power plant and transfer their skills, though.

BRODIE: Well, and you reference this, but in terms of people maybe moving elsewhere — that, as you talked about, takes kids out of schools, it takes sort of sort of the tax base away. Does that in some ways maybe counteract what the city is trying to do in terms of boosting, for example, tourism?

Horseshoe Bend on the Colorado River
National Park Service
Horseshoe Bend on the Colorado River in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.

RANDAZZO: Sure. It's got it's definitely going to hurt. There's there's no way that you can relocate people out of a small town like that and not feel the economic impact. So Page's going to hurt a little bit. I think the point I was trying to make is that as far as coal communities go, they're pretty fortunate to have something to fall back on.

GILGER: Yeah. We've talked before with you, Ryan, about sort of as this this plant closes the effect on the Navajo Nation and a lot of people who worked there and live in page are members of the Navajo Nation. What does that tribal government say about this, and how are they working to alleviate the pain here?

RANDAZZO: Well, both the Navajo and the Hopi tribes, the coal just plays a crucial role in both of their economies. The Navajo just signed a new budget, and they were fortunate enough to have a rainy day fund to sort of plug the hole this year. But of course, the power plant is still running. It's going to run for maybe another week or two depending on how much coal and how fast they're burning it. But next year is when both of those tribes are really going to feel the pinch, and they're going to have to create their annual budgets without the benefit of the coal revenues and the jobs and the power plant and all the myriad things that the mine and plant brought to them.

BRODIE: All right. That is Ryan Randazzo with the Arizona Republic. Ryan, as always, thanks for coming in.

RANDAZZO: Thank you.

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