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Down and Dirty

Opponents of the Desert Rock Power Plant say it's time to get over coal

December 17, 2008, 12:00 am

Navajo activist Elouise Brown has seen her life turned upside down in recent years.

In October, 2006, through a quirk of fate, she became president of Doodá Desert Rock, a group formed in resistance to the power plant. She was volunteering to help when the president of the organization—her aunt—became spooked by legal threats from proponents of the project. Nobody else within the organization wanted the president’s position, and they voted Brown in as leader. “So that’s how I got in there: People voted me in,” she says. “Everybody agreed except me, and I thought, ‘If I don’t agree to do it, who’s going to do it?”

And although the tribal council overwhelmingly voted in support of the plant—and its 67 percent tax break from the tribe—she denies that the Navajo people as a whole support the plant. “When I first got started, hardly anybody knew about the plant, so we go and talk to people and get on the local radio stations in Farmington, Window Rock and Gallup and try to announce this in Navajo. We’re telling people in Navajo, ‘Wake up people, this is what’s going on!’” she says. “People were saying to us, ‘We didn’t know about this,’ but now, quite a bit of people are aware of it, and the ones aware of it, are opposed to it.”

For two years now, she has checked in almost daily at the 580-acre construction site in Burnham, NM. She monitors activities, talks back at the employees who tell her to keep moving and, last year, snapped photos as workers performed tests for water beneath the site and allowed the water pumped from beneath the ground to rush for days through a formerly dry arroyo. She frequently posts those pictures to the group’s blog or sends them along to the state’s newspaper reporters. She also helps organize a protest camp, which Navajo activists and elders have occupied for more than two years. The protest began in December 2006 when Brown and others realized the company was getting ready to begin preliminary work at the site of the plant. Protestors set up a blockade, preventing company employees from entering the area. They continue to occupy the site and, today, Brown still brings state officials, elected representatives and others out to the site—to hear from the “grandmas” why those who live near the site are willing to camp out, in the heat and cold, rain and snow, to oppose the plant.

And while she has witnessed poverty as stark as any across the reservation, she says that the promise of economic development from the tribal government is an empty one, particularly when weighed against the health of the Navajo people and the fate of the planet.

She also dismisses Maisano’s claim that it is just a “vocal minority” opposed to the coal plant. “I know that a lot of people are opposed, I talk to them and visit them at their home,” she says. “When we went to the public hearings for the draft [environmental-impact statement] I never—not once—did I hear someone who was for the power plant, except for those people who were going to build it, the people from Sithe Global and the Diné Power Authority.”

For his part, environmental activist Mike Eisenfeld has learned in the past few years that the old-style energy industry isn’t as unshakable as it once was. Communities opposed to polluting industries can, in fact, go head-to-head against large corporations—and presidential administrations bent on drilling for oil, burning coal and exploiting every last bit of fossil fuel energy.

“Four years ago, when I first started working on Desert Rock, the proponents laughed in my face and said, ‘There are no opponents up here, this is a done deal, and nobody is going to get in our way—construction is going to start in 2006,’” Eisenfeld says. “But here we are in 2008, on the cusp of 2009, and I think the whole game has shifted.”  SFR

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