Hopi Tribe, Others Sue Over Power Purchases for Coal Plant

The Hopi Tribe and coal mining groups on Tuesday sued the operator of an Arizona aqueduct system to try and keep a coal-fired power plant running beyond 2019.

The lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court by the tribe, the United Mine Workers of America and Peabody Energy contends the Central Arizona Water Conservation District is obligated under federal law to buy power from Navajo Generating Station near Page. The 2,250 MW power plant is set to close next year and the prospects of new ownership depend on finding someone to purchase the electricity.

The conservation district, under the Central Arizona Project, has been one of the primary customers over the years, using the power to send Colorado River water through canals to cities, tribes and farmers in central and southern Arizona. Like the power plant’s owners, it is turning to sources that are cheaper than coal-fired power.

Coal is abundant on the Navajo and Hopi reservations in northeastern Arizona. Both rely heavily on revenues to fund their governments and provide services to tribal members. They’ve been asking for help from federal officials to keep the plant open and preserve hundreds of jobs for tribal members.

“The loss of 85 percent of our annual general fund based on the whims of the utility owners and the CAP would be devastating to the Hopi people,” Hopi Chairman Tim Nuvanyaoma said in a press release. “CAP staff cannot be allowed to continue this illegal approach.”

DeEtte Person, a spokeswoman for the conservation district, said in an email that officials are reviewing the lawsuit and considering its impact. She previously said the district is not required to take power from the plant and has other resources to pay a federal debt of more than $1 billion for construction of the canal system.

The district is a public entity “with a responsibility to deliver a reliable water supply at the lowest reasonable cost,” she said.

That could include power from the Navajo Generating Station if it is competitively priced, she said.

“In the meantime, the CAP Board is doing what it must do to responsibly meet its future water delivery commitments,” she said.

Congress chose to construct the power plant rather than build two dams on the Colorado River for hydroelectricity so Arizona could move its share of water throughout the state. The owners announced last year that it would close in favor of cheaper natural gas prices. The plant’s sole coal supplier, Peabody, later hired investment firm Lazard Freres to find a new owner to save the generating station and the Kayenta Mine.

“While there are buyers interested now, they may lose interest and walk away in the near future if CAWCD continues to flout its responsibility to purchase CAP’s power requirements from NGS,” the lawsuit contends. “Once the buyers walk, the demise of NGS will be assured.”

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which owns about a quarter of the power generated from the plant, has said it’s working to prevent a shutdown.

Agency spokeswoman Patti Aaron said Tuesday that officials need more time to review the lawsuit and had no immediate comment.