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Transitioning away from coal leaves Navajo communities struggling

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

People who promote an energy transition in this country promise two things - an end to coal-powered electricity and new economic development for people who make their living from coal. One thing is happening; the other less so. And the people affected include parts of the Navajo Nation. Here's Alice Fordham from our member station KUNM in New Mexico.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: In the rocky, red landscape outside Farmington, N.M., the San Juan coal mine is a broad, dark smudge.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY CLANGING)

FORDHAM: Miners work alongside hulking machinery, but they're not digging in to the rich, black scene. They're filling in shafts and tunnels.

STEVEN PIERRO: We're closing the mine. We've sold all the equipment, and we've sealed the portals.

FORDHAM: General manager Steven Pierro says about 200 people used to work here. Just a few dozen are left. In the background looms a silent power plant, smokeless smokestacks against the blue sky.

PIERRO: We were the sole supplier for the generating station. We have nowhere else to sell our coal.

FORDHAM: The station employed another 220 people. It closed in September, one of several coal power plants either closed or slated to close around here. They supported many families.

BARRY DIXON: Started out at age 19, I believe, and I worked for 34 years in the coal mines.

FORDHAM: Barry Dixon is a member of the Navajo Nation, like many of the workers at mines and plants in this Four Corners region.

DIXON: They were extremely important because they helped create the Navajo middle class to a great extent.

FORDHAM: In an area of deep poverty, the coal industry provided hundreds of well-paid union jobs. Dixon started as a laborer, became an electrician, built a life. And his family didn't have to labor the way he did.

DIXON: So we were able to pay for our children's needs while in college. So having a home and owning our property - things of that nature like that was, I think, a big benefit to my children, knowing that they knew where home was.

FORDHAM: Things started to change in 2017 when the utility PNM announced a plan to close the generating station as renewables got cheaper and clean air laws got tighter. Then New Mexico passed a climate law with a detailed plan for the shutdown. Dixon gave up pressing for it to stay open and negotiated severance as best he could. But the ripples of the closure are wide and deep. For instance, many laid-off workers have already moved to work in mines and plants elsewhere, in some cases, leaving relatives to look after their kids.

At an elementary school in the nearby town of Kirtland, Principal Debi Tom says some are struggling.

DEBI TOM: They are familiar with the strains and stresses that it puts on Mom, Dad. Their families having to even be displaced to caregiving families as opposed to being one family unit.

FORDHAM: And beyond that, the school district relies on tax revenue from power plants.

TOM: The impact has been felt, and it has put some into disarray because, you know, that was kind of the way of life here.

FORDHAM: For many, this economic pain is especially galling because it was predicted. When New Mexico passed its Energy Transition Act in 2019, it recognized the likely impact of the closure. It called on the utility, PNM, to build a renewable power plant in the school district and for ratepayers to contribute $20 million for economic development in the area, but neither has happened. The utility says third-party companies considering building a solar plant got delayed by supply chain issues, among other things. The $20 million got held up by legal disputes.

Local businessman Jason Sandel says this is not fair.

JASON SANDEL: We've got a history of supplying energy to, really, the Western United States. And my message is, don't forget about us.

FORDHAM: In August, David Turk, the U.S. deputy secretary of energy, visited and announced a new plan to help. He said, quote, "This community doesn't have time to just wait for the transition. We've got to be rapid." A rapid response team was set up - part of a nationwide effort to help coal-dependent communities. The National Laboratory at nearby Los Alamos is leading it, but they say actually economic transition isn't rapid.

Jolante Van Wijk leads a group of scientists there.

JOLANTE VAN WIJK: So if you look historically at how these energy transitions have evolved, they take time - a generation or so.

FORDHAM: Which isn't helping laid-off workers pay their bills. Barry Dixon, the former miner, has had about enough of promises.

DIXON: Fairly disappointed with the state of New Mexico in regard to moving faster than a speeding snail.

FORDHAM: It's hard to keep track of the legislation, lawsuits, initiatives. And people come to him with questions.

DIXON: How do I pay for health and welfare? I've got kids at home that I've got to take care of. My parents live with me, or my mom lives with me. When is this money going to be made available to us? When?

FORDHAM: He has to tell them he has no idea.

For NPR News, I'm Alice Fordham in Kirtland, N.M. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alice Fordham is an NPR International Correspondent based in Beirut, Lebanon.