How One Small Tribe Beat Coal and Built a Solar Plant
Color Lines, Yessenia Funes APR 10, 2017 Tucked between scattered red desert rocks, the Moapa Band of Paiutes dwells on a little over 70,000 acres in southeastern Nevada. It’s a small tribe with a population of no more than 311, but those numbers haven’t stopped its members from shutting down a giant coal generating station to protect their health and land.
While President Donald Trump is attempting to revive the coal industry, the Moapa Band has proven how dangerous that industry can be to health. Tribal members suffer from high rates of asthma and heart disease, though the tribe’s small size makes it difficult to accurately quantify. The coal-fired Reid Gardner Generating Station sits outside the Moapa River Indian Reservation, just beyond a fence for some tribal members who have had to deal with the repercussions of its air pollution and toxic coal ash waste for 52 years.
“The whole tribe was suffering from it,” says Vernon Lee, a tribal member and former council member who worked at the plant 15 years ago. “It’s just bad stuff. We all knew that.”
Coincidentally, the day after the station last stopped operating (on March 17), the Moapa Band of Paiutes launched the Moapa Southern Paiute Solar Project, the first-ever solar project built on tribal land, in partnership with large-scale solar operator First Solar. Companies started approaching the tribe about leasing its land around the same time their organizing took off, and things essentially fell into place.
Despite all this—and the impending closure of the coal-fired Navajo Generating Station in Arizona, also run by NV Energy and impacting Navajo Nation members who work there or live nearby—President Trump is pushing forth with a coal-first energy agenda……..
the tribe’s prevalence of cardiovascular and respiratory issues are consistent with what is generally caused by air pollution, says C. Arden Pope III, an environmental epidemiologist who currently teaches economics at Brigham Young University but has served on the EPA Science Advisory Board and chairs the EPA Advisory Council on Clean Air Compliance Analysis.
Coal releases heavy carbon dioxide emissions, but it also emits a cocktail of pollutants dangerous to health: sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, mercury, particulates and fly ash that is then placed into nearby ponds. Lee calls them “chemical soup ponds.” These pollutants can lead to respiratory issues, heart problems, as well as neurological and developmental damage.
Pope has examined the health of the Moapa Band. Back in 2012, he attempted to conduct a study on the tribe but was unable to establish conclusive findings because the tribe’s numbers are so small. Then, there was the issue of no valid control group because, as Pope put it, “they all lived so very close to the power plant that…they were all being exposed.”
Still, Pope did collect a lot of data, and the health impacts were enough for him to have a strong opinion about how the generating station was impacting their health: “Do I think that the exposure to air pollution likely had adverse impacts on their health? The answer to that is yes.”
And he says that their high rates of respiratory and cardiovascular issues are in line with greater empirical research on air pollution. Without a conclusive study, however, it was difficult for government officials to take tribal members seriously.
“But we wouldn’t care,” chairwoman Simmons says. “We smelled it and felt it.”
Then, in 2010, they met Vinny Spotleson, who was working with the Sierra Club at that time. That changed everything.
It all started with letters. That’s how tribal members first thought they’d give the EPA and state agencies like the state’s Division of Environmental Protection a piece of their mind. “People wrote [many] letters,” Simmons tells me, adding that they never got a response.
When they met Spotleson in 2010, Simmons realized that they finally had the support needed to be taken seriously by officials. Before then, Simmons says government agencies would shoot back with numbers from air quality reports she and other Moapa people didn’t fully understand. But Spotleson introduced them to lawyers and scientists. From there, all the Moapa had to do was tell their stories. Simmons remembers Spotleson telling her, “Just say how you feel, and they’ll never be able to prove you wrong.”……
with the help of the Sierra Club, the Moapa Band of Paiutes entered into a legal battle against the Bureau of Land Management for approving the expansion project in Moapa Band of Paiutes, et al v. BLM, et al. Part of their campaign involved growing public awareness. The residents in Las Vegas whose homes were powered by the plant had no idea where it was or that it even existed—much less what it was doing to the Moapa.
“We did see a lot of people in the community, in Las Vegas, in southern Nevada, really engaging and making this campaign their own,” says Elspeth DiMarzio, another Sierra Club campaign organizer who worked with the Moapa. “Once they were aware of the issue, they could see that their neighbors in Moapa were suffering because of an energy that they were receiving.”……
the tribe ultimately lost that case in 2013—but they didn’t lose everything.
Legislators introduced Senate Bill 123 in February 2013, which would require certain utilities (like NV Energy, the one behind Reid Gardner) to reduce their coal-based greenhouse gas emissions by eliminating at least 800 megawatts of electricity by 2019 and replacing part of that lost energy with 350 megawatts of renewable energy like solar or wind. This came after these three years of organizing by the Moapa and its allies.
By April, NV Energy gave its support for SB 123. In June 2013, the bill became law—with a stamp of approval from NV Energy and the Moapa.
The plant shuttered for good March 2017…….
The tribe now leases its land to Capital Dyanmics, which owns the Moapa Southern Paiute Solar Project. The plant provided 115 construction jobs for tribal members and employs two permanently as field technicians.
The power goes to Los Angeles, and the tribe receives revenue from leasing their land. But they’ve been discussing and attempting to find bidders for two other solar projects with the thought of launching one that would bring that power into their homes.
They have a new revenue stream and are still deciding on the best way to use it. “We’ve never been in this position before or had these [solar] projects before,” Simmons says. “It’s hard to take off and start spending everything we do have because we want to plan and spend accordingly.”
The Moapa went from suffering at the hands of coal to benefiting from the profits of renewables……http://www.colorlines.com/articles/how-one-small-tribe-beat-coal-and-built-solar-plant
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