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Smokestacks come down: The end of an era in Page, Arizona

On the morning of Dec. 18, massive simultaneous explosions leveled three huge 775-foot-tall smokestacks at Page, Arizona.

It was the end of an era for the Navajo Generating Station and a coal-fired power plant that had generated 2,250 megawatts and spewed pollution and particulates across the Colorado Plateau. The tall stacks could be seen for miles. What was not visible was the treachery and deceit that had allowed Peabody Coal Co. to mine Black Mesa coal – coal once burned in those concrete stacks.

It has taken years for the entire story to be pieced together. Over time, I’d found traces of information here and there, but history always wins out. Deception may create a slick gloss, but eventually the sheen slides away and the rough-edged, jagged truth remains. Where is that line between ethical and unethical behavior? Why would an attorney betray the trust of his Native American clients?

If there is one story across the Southwest in the post-World War II decades of rapid growth, expansion and development, one story about Indigenous peoples and damage to their environment, one story about corporate power, it is the story of Peabody Coal and electricity generated on the Colorado Plateau that fueled the population boom in Las Vegas, Phoenix, Tucson, Arizona, and Los Angeles and the metallic purr of air conditioning in the desert’s heat.

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The story begins with Salt Lake City lawyer John Boyden, who cozied up to the Hopi Tribal Council. The pro-development Tribal Council ignored tribal elders and their fears over damage to hidden springs, plant life, animal life and the land itself. Slowly, methodically, Boyden drove a wedge between tribal traditionalists and younger tribal members, “progressives,” often Mormon like himself, who were eager for good pay and jobs close to home. He drove a devil’s bargain within Native American communities and between Hopis and Navajos, who both shared a joint-use area on Black Mesa that Boyden had skillfully negotiated.

A winter scene shows smoke and steam emanating from the Navajo Generating Station, which for decades sent mercury, arsenic and sulfur dioxide into the air. The three stacks were demolished in December. The Los Angeles Times reported, “The demolition capped off another tumultuous year for coal power. The industry helped build the modern West, but it’s collapsing as utility companies turn to natural gas, solar panels and wind turbines for lower-cost electricity, and as voters demand cleaner energy to reduce air pollution and confront the climate crisis.”

Boyden worked on the Navajo-Hopi land dispute all the while knowing that “utility companies wanted to multiply the capacity and efficiency of the western power grid by putting in a new round of projects. Black Mesa was a key component in the Grand Plan from the beginning,” writes University of Colorado law professor Charles Wilkinson. He says in his book “Fire on the Plateau,” “This took place before environmental impact statements. There were no public hearings. Few people, Indian or non-Indian, in or out of government or business, knew about these transactions.”

If Boyden’s long-term grasping for mineral resources wasn’t devious enough, it took decades to determine that he had another employer besides the Hopis. He also worked for Peabody Coal.

Corporate secrets are revealed in the attorney’s archives at the University of Utah in files discovered by one of Wilkinson’s graduate students. Boyden told his tribal clients he would get them the best leases possible for their minerals and their water, but instead, he locked them into multi-decade contracts at the lowest possible rates so that Peabody Coal Co. could pay pennies instead of dollars on energy that would double and then triple the non-Native white population in the Southwest. When the lease area was expanded because more coal was needed, Hopis received no additional payments only “a continuation of the below-market royalties provided.”

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Boyden’s dealings created antagonism and distrust between Hopis and Navajos, and sucked millions of gallons of fresh pure water out of a desert aquifer, water that had accrued over millennia of rain and snowfall. How to move all those tons of coal mined at Black Mesa? Engineers designed a massive slurry line, annually using 4,000 acre-feet of groundwater. Pulverized coal blended with fresh pure water was piped to Page, stockpiled and then burned in the tall smokestacks. A longer slurry line crossed the desert all the way to the Mohave Generating Station in Nevada.

For Lake Powell boaters, the three smokestacks from the Navajo Generating Station could be seen for miles up and down Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. Here, they were visible near Wahweap Marina.

For the Hopis, sacred springs dried up. Corn crops shriveled as water ceased to flow in underground channels and streambeds, where it had always flowed. Yes, both tribes received annual income and some employment. Almost all the mining jobs at Black Mesa went to Navajos who lived close to Kayenta, Arizona. Men went to work, fed their families and bought new pickup trucks, but nothing was sustainable. Energy flowed into the grid to light up huge cities like Phoenix and Los Angeles, while many local Native American families still have no electricity.

When both tribes demanded changes in the contracts, when they demanded higher royalty rates for their mineral and water rights, corporate lawyers kept them at bay for years. John Boyden had drafted precise agreements with no allowance for renegotiation. The tribes were locked in at 3.335% of gross sales, less than what the federal government received for coal leases. He had masterminded the nation’s largest coal strip-mining complex on tribal lands.

Precious water and valuable coal were sluiced off across the desert. Electricity went into the grid for the Southwest’s massive growth spurt, and noxious fumes and tons of deadly particulates spewed out of the stacks. From almost anywhere on the Colorado Plateau, you could see the pall and smoke from Page. Boaters on Lake Powell only had to look at the stacks to tell the wind’s direction.

On Dec. 18, the three smokestacks at the Navajo Generating Station near Page, Ariz., came down. They were as tall as a 77½ story building and were the third largest human-made structures in the state. For 45 years, they had spewed chemicals and carbon dioxide across Native American nations on the Colorado Plateau.

On the top of the Vermilion Cliffs searching for rare California condors, I saw the stacks puffing away miles below me. Once I even planned to write about a rogue U.S. Air Force pilot, seduced by a pretty, young eco-terrorist. In my fictional plot, he would break from formation in his fighter jet, bomb the smokestacks at the Navajo Generating Station, skim his plane over Lake Powell, eject from his cockpit and be rescued by his lover and radical environmentalists at night in a Zodiac raft. A small cell of eco-fighters would then drive him out of the canyons by Jeep and slip him stealthily toward Canada, all the while the radicalized pilot would receive kisses and hugs from his accomplice and girlfriend. Edward Abbey would have liked the story line.

But I’m not a fiction writer. As an historian, I’ve learned that nothing can be written in a novel that is any more outrageous than plain, simple researched facts. You just have to look hard enough. The perfidy of John Boyden might make its own movie script. His deception will be remembered across the Colorado Plateau as will the company he worked for. Peabody Coal went bankrupt.

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The downing of the smokestacks at Page signifies the end of an era – an era of environmental degradation, underhanded legal contracts and tribal exploitation. Tribes now have checks and balances on the attorneys they hire. Natural gas is cheaper and cleaner than coal. Climate change demands less carbon dioxide. The entire power plant will be dismantled, hauled off and sold for scrap. The ground will be cleaned up and monitored for ecological impacts. Yes, there are jobs in environmental restoration, too.

I think of the view from a condor’s eyes. The bird with its 9-foot wingspan has cruised the canyons since before the Pleistocene. Perhaps its feathered-dinosaur ancestors were there at the beginning, when sunshine on large, leafy plants became squeezed into coal. Rising with hot thermal winds in the summer, coasting off the edge of the Vermilion Cliffs, seeing the Grand Canyon far below, with a flick of a condor’s wing feathers and a slow turn over Lake Powell, the power plant will be gone. Houseboats will still huddle together at Antelope and Wahweap marinas. There will still be miles of sinuous sandstone, and skies will be blue once more.

Andrew Gulliford, an award-winning author and editor, is professor of history and environmental studies at Fort Lewis College. Reach him at andy@agulliford.com.