(CN) – In an attempt to save more than 800 jobs in the region, the Hopi Tribe and groups of coal miners have filed a lawsuit in federal court arguing that a water conservation district should continue buying power from a massive coal-fired plant that is slated to close next year.
“The Hopi made their lands available for the mine with the understanding that [the power plant] would create revenues for the Hopi Tribe for several more decades until at least 2044,” the 16-page complaint says. “This revenue helps the federal government fulfill its trust responsibilities to the Hopi Tribe.”
The Navajo Generating Station is the third-largest carbon emitting facility in the nation, burning 24,000 tons of coal each day.
A confluence of environmental, tribal and business concerns has led to a great deal of litigation around the plant, which is scheduled to close in 2019.
The plant, which is located on Navajo land, is a top employer in the region and makes up more than one third of the tribe’s income. Court records say 50 to 70 percent of residents of the Hopi Reservation work there.
The federal government will allow the plant to reduce emissions by utilizing temporary shutdowns, rather than requiring it to modernize its equipment.
The future of the plant depends on who will buy its electricity, and the Hopi tribe says the Central Arizona Water Conservation District should be the one to do it.
The massive water infrastructure Central Arizona Project was a major customer of the power plant, using the power to send water from the Colorado River through canals in the arid desert climate.
In November 2016, the Hopi Tribe argued before the Ninth Circuit that the Environmental Protection Agency’s advisory group shut it out of the decision-making process to close the plant.
Its action was consolidated with a challenge by a number of other tribal and environmental groups.
In March 2017, a Ninth Circuit panel rejected the challenge, finding that the EPA had acted reasonably and had complied with its obligations.
And in April, the House Committee of Natural Resources held a hearing on the power plant, where supporters told the panel about the negative effects the plant’s closure would have on the local economy.
The United Mine Workers of America and the plant’s coal supplier, Peabody Energy, joined the Hopi tribe as plaintiffs in this week’s lawsuit, which was filed in the District of Arizona.
The tribe and coal interests say the Central Arizona Water Conservation District is legally obligated to buy the plant’s power after 2019.
“Now that Maricopa, Pima and Pinal Counties’ water supply is secured, [the conservation district] seeks to turn its back on the Hopi by refusing to fulfill its obligation to buy [the Central Arizona Project’s] power requirements from [the plant] after 2019,” the lawsuit states.
They also say the plant has plenty of fuel from the nearby Kayenta coal mine.
The decision not to buy the power “could have devastating impacts on those that benefit from the continued operation” of the plant, according to the complaint. The Hopi Tribe and the local economy would be affected, as well as miners at the Kayenta Mine, who are represented by the United Mine Workers.
The plaintiffs seek a declaration that the conservation district has a duty to acquire the power for as long as the plant is operating.
In response to the lawsuit, The Central Arizona Project said it cannot continue to delay plans for replacement power.
As long as the plant remains open, “there is room in the CAP portfolio” to buy “cost-competitive” power from it, CAP said in a statement.
“The CAP Board took several actions to delay the process to allow for other opportunities to emerge,” it said. “Further delays could threaten the organization’s ability to meet our responsibilities.”
“We recognize and respect the perspectives of those who, like CAP, are also impacted by the decision to close [the plant],” it added.
Though the case was filed Tuesday, it was withheld from the press until Wednesday.