Coal-fired power plant powers off at Navajo Nation in Arizona

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FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — A massive coal-fired power plant that served customers in the West for nearly 50 years shut down Monday, the latest closure in a shift away from coal and toward renewable energy and cheaper power.

The Navajo Generating Station near the Arizona-Utah line was expected to shutter by the end of the year, but the exact day hadn’t been certain as the plant worked to deplete a stockpile of coal. It stopped producing electricity shortly after noon Monday when shift supervisor Fred Larson, a 41-year employee, put the plant permanently offline.

“It will be hard for people because for employees, there’s a lot of pride, a lot of passion for their work, and they have put their heart and soul in this plant,” operations manager Jeff Rhees said.

The 2,250-megawatt, three-unit plant was one of the largest in the West and had long been a target of environmentalists, who argued it polluted the air and contributed to health problems. Cheaper prices for power produced by natural gas, rather than environmental regulations, led the owners to decide in 2017 to close it.

Coal was delivered to the power plant by a dedicated, electric railway that snakes 78 miles through the high desert in the Navajo Nation. By next fall, the poles and overhead electrical lines that served the railway will be gone. The Navajo Nation has not decided whether to keep the railway and use it for tourism or sell it.

Three towering concrete stacks with flashing lights that served as beacons in the community will be demolished by next fall. Decommissioning will take up to three years, after which the land is supposed to be returned to the condition it was in before the plant was built.

Steve Yazzie, a former power plant employee who now works for a tribal energy company, said biologists from the Navajo Nation and the Salt River Project, which operates the plant, recently met to talk about reseeding the land with plants used for dying wool, making tea and traditional medicines.

Reclamation work also is being done at Peabody Energy’s Kayenta Mine, which pulled coal from land owned by the Navajo and Hopi tribes. It closed months ahead of the power plant because it had no other customers.

Environmentalists will be watching the reclamation efforts closely and pushing the Navajo Nation to develop more renewable energy sources.

“We need to heal from the wrongs of the past by … prioritizing energy and water management policies that are in line with our values and virtues as stewards of the natural world,” said Marie Gladue of the Black Mesa Water Coalition.

Offers to work at other Salt River Project sites were given to the more than 430 employees. The workforce was majority Native American, and the plant provided significant revenue for the Navajo and Hopi tribes.

Rhees said it was important to him to be at the power plant until the end before transferring to the Coronado Power Plant near St. Johns, Ariz.

“I want to be able to shake people’s hands and say thank you for what they’ve done,” he said. “And, tell everybody goodbye.”

Felicia Fonseca is an Associated Press writer.