Threatened Vistas

The explosive growth of  coal-fired power plants in the Four Corners region could jeopardize  the archaeological treasures of Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon.


By Tim Vanderpool


Standing atop a rock-strewn mesa at Chaco Canyon, Barbara West can gaze back in time. To one side lie the Pueblo Alto ruins—remnants of a great house rising from the tawny earth. On the other is a vast expanse, cradling the very roots of Chaco civilization.

“When you get up on top of a mesa by Pueblo Alto and you look out, the skies are pretty clear,” says West, the superintendent of Chaco Culture National Historical Park in northwestern New Mexico. “There’s not a whole lot of development, just the occasional Navajo dwelling or camp. It’s a pretty unoccupied landscape.”

But hundreds of years ago, from 850 to 1250 A.D., Chaco was a flourishing nexus of Pueblo society, rich in ceremony, commerce, and even nascent astronomy. Today, the park recalls that remarkable culture in complex ruins stretching into the distance.

In 1980, Congress expanded Chaco from a national monument into a national historic site and also designated 39 sites beyond the park’s boundaries for archaeological protection. Today, those distant reaches of Chaco culture are visible from Pueblo Alto. But they may not be for long. Less than 50 miles away on the Navajo Reservation, New York-based Sithe Global Power hopes to build a huge, coal-burning power plant. The Desert Rock Energy Facility would spew up to 12 million tons of carbon dioxide, or CO2, into the atmosphere each year.

That’s in addition to the 29 million tons of CO2 already emitted by two area power plants, along with a host of toxins ranging from mercury to sulfur dioxide. This all combines to spew haze and pollution into the Four Corners region—the intersection of Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico—an area as remote and undeveloped as any in the continental United States.

Unfortunately, Chaco and Mesa Verde aren’t alone. Despite federal legislation meant to safeguard the air around national parks, too many are falling victim to pollution from oil- and gas-burning power plants. Out of 391 units in the National Park System, 150 are located in areas that fail to meet air-quality standards.

At Four Corners, however, a power plant would not only doom the park’s stunning vistas—imagine a haze clouding Chaco’s Pueblo Bonito or Mesa Verde’s Cliff Palace—but acids from coal-based pollution may directly damage the ancient treasures themselves and compromise future research. If the trend continues, Four Corners’ park units could be poster children for air pollution.

“These parks are in grave danger,” says David Nimkin, director of NPCA’s Southwest regional office. “There are currently 17 coal-fired plants on the Colorado Plateau and six with licenses pending. Those coal plants are the largest contributors to CO2 in this area.”

Ironically, nine of the park units in question—including Mesa Verde—are Class-1 air quality areas, according them the highest level of protection under the Clean Air Act. Failure to live up to that standard not only damages natural and cultural resources, says Nimkin, but could exact a toll on the tourist economy. The area draws up to 13 million visitors a year to explore Una Vida, Chaco’s kiva-dotted great house, or climb ladders in Mesa Verde’s 40-room Balcony House.

Recognizing potential impacts, the National Park Service has negotiated with Sithe to reduce overall Four Corners emissions. The company has pledged to fund emission-reducing equipment for other area polluters, assuming amenable partners can be found, says John Bunyak, chief of planning and permit reviews for the Park Service’s Air Resources Division. “If Sithe does what they say they’ll do and the Environmental Protection Agency makes those provisions enforceable, then we’re okay with the project moving forward.”

Even so, the Park Service’s own reports suggest that acidic compounds contained in coal-plant emissions—nitrates and sulfates—could threaten ruins such as Bandelier National Monument’s sandstone pueblos in New Mexico and Mesa Verde’s magnificent Spruce Tree House, with its 130 rooms dating from 1211 A.D.

That worries Jerry Spangler, executive director of the Colorado Plateau Archaeological Alliance. He argues that pollution’s impact on archaeological sites isn’t well understood, and for that reason, government officials should err on the side of protection. But he’s not holding his breath. “We have a long history of federal agencies not really addressing impacts to archaeology,” he says. “Power-plant emissions contain a variety of chemicals and compounds which can be corrosive and adversely affect rock art. Pollutants can interact with the paint pigments and coat them with materials that would erode them.”

Coal-based pollution could also hinder research, says Spangler. “When you’re introducing exotic chemicals or compounds to archaeological deposits, it contaminates the site. When anything gets into the soil, you then have to know what those substances are and when they got there, to be able to compensate for them.”

On the other side of the Four Corners conflict are Sithe Global Power and Navajo President Joe Shirley, Jr. Shirley and tribal council members who support the plant hope it will boost the reservation’s economy, where unemployment approaches 50 percent and yearly household incomes average around $8,000. Desert Rock could provide hundreds of jobs and an expected $50 million in annual taxes and coal royalties.

Sithe officials call Desert Rock a boost for the tribe—and for cutting-edge energy generation. “To us, this project is a step forward,” says Nathan Plagens, project director for Desert Rock. Sithe will help reduce overall emissions across Four Corners, he says, and the plant can easily be retrofitted with new technology.

Shirley, the leader of the Navajo people, has remained a steadfast supporter of the power plant, despite angry opposition that boiled over in January 2007, when Desert Rock protesters rallied at his inauguration ceremony.

Among those protesters was Elouise Brown, president of a group called Dooda Desert Rock, or “No to Desert Rock” in Navajo. Beyond concerns that the plant’s emissions would compromise the health of Navajos, Brown fears that the same air pollution would jeopardize traditional practices like rug weaving by affecting natural pigments used to dye the fabrics.

Others point to the irony of siting a plant on Navajo land that could irreparably damage ancient Native American ruins at Chaco and Mesa Verde. “Navajo people respect these sacred areas—they are part of our history,” says Enei Begaye, director of the Black Mesa Water Coalition, a group of Navajo and Hopi Indians fighting Desert Rock. “So it’s particularly painful that our own tribal government is insisting on building the plant.”

Desert Rock has another powerful foe in New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, a former secretary of the Department of Energy and a current presidential candidate. Although New Mexico holds no jurisdiction over tribal lands, Richardson has loudly warned that Desert Rock could hike New Mexico’s total greenhouse gas emissions by 15 percent. The state legislature also rejected an $85-million tax credit sought by power plant officials.

Nationally, the coal industry took a hit when influential Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-NV) pledged to fight new coal plants in his state. “The threat of global warming is certainly part of my concern, but there’s more,” Reid wrote in an August guest editorial for The Ely Times. “This is about the health and well being of our entire state and the West.”

Because Desert Rock would be built in Navajo country, however, even members of Congress have limited options for stopping it. “I don’t know what our hook is,” says Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ), chairman of the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands. “If it were on federal land, we’d obviously have a significant hook to deal with it. But it’s on tribal land.”

Still, he says, Desert Rock supporters should look beyond tribal boundaries. “The Navajo Nation calls it a sovereignty issue, and perhaps it is. But there are also negative corollary effects on the public lands around it.”

To catalogue those effects, NPCA and several other groups issued comments about the environmental impact statement drafted in accordance with the scoping process, which details expected pollution problems and the failure to consider cumulative impacts from the Four Corners power plants.

“Park Service data already show that visibility is impaired for a fair amount of time at Mesa Verde,” says Roger Clark, air and energy program director for The Grand Canyon Trust, one of the partners that have joined forces with NPCA to address the issue. “This new power plant can do nothing but add to that decline in visibility.”

His point isn’t lost on Tessy Shirakawa, chief of interpretation at Mesa Verde National Park. Stretching across Colorado’s southwestern corner, Mesa Verde possesses treasures of Pueblo cultural remnants, from rock art to stunning cliff dwellings.

At one time, visitors were greeted by vast views. But not anymore. “On a normal summer day, we certainly don’t have the 100-mile-plus visibility we had in previous times,” Shirakawa says. “We’re concerned, because people drive all the way to the top of the mesa and have an opportunity to see all of the Four Corners states. And now the view is hazy.

“A fair number of our visitors come from urban areas,” she says, “to a place where they expect clean air and blue skies and great visibility. And then they can’t see any better than in their own city.”

“The whole Four Corners area has been a sacrifice area for energy development since the 1950s, starting with uranium mining,” says Roger Clark. “And it just goes on and on. One reason is the resources contained there, and another is [the absence of a] politically organized group of people with a means of income beyond coal.”

Back at Chaco, Superintendent West just waits—and watches. Looking outward from the park, “there’s a sense that the view could have been very much like this in the 10th century,” she says. That perspective may not last for long. “If the air quality changes much, our ability to see those far-off areas is going to be diminished. And I think visitors’ understanding of the sheer size of the Chacoan civilization is going to be diminished as well.”

Tim Vanderpool writes about environmental and Southwest border issues from Tucson, Arizona.

This article appears in the Winter 2008 issue.

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