State commission hears from Page residents about ‘chaos,’ ‘trauma’ caused by NGS closure

Navajo Generating Station operating in April 2009.

The Arizona Corporation Commission held a town hall meeting in Page last month aimed at investigating how it can assist communities that have been impacted by closures of coal-fired power plants.

Many of the residents who spoke at the May 24 meeting, which was led by ACC chair Lea Márquez Peterson, highlighted the human and economic impacts that the 2019 closure of Navajo Generating Station (NGS) had on Page and the surrounding region.

NGS, a 2.25-gigawatt coal-fired power plant located on the Navajo Nation about 3 miles southeast of Page, opened in 1974. Operated by Salt River Project (SRP), it employed nearly 600 workers but was decommissioned in 2019 when the lease expired.

At the start of the town hall meeting, Márquez Peterson said the commission was “particularly interested in hearing from options such as transitional funding, jobs, repurposing of plants and facilities, and benefits and impacts to rate payers.” 

“We want to hear what the closure has meant to you and your community,” she said. “We want to hear your ideas and concerns so we can use these in deliberations.’ 

Will Green, policy advisor for ACC commissioner Sandra Kennedy, read a statement from Kennedy in which she said she was “hopeful throughout the course of the multiple town halls planned around the state, we will gain a better understanding of the ways the commission can help impacted communities and also see the first-hand consequences of inaction.”

Page City Manager Darren Coldwell, the first resident to speak at the town hall, said Page had suffered “chaos” and “trauma” as a result of the closure of NGS. He described the help offered by the state for retraining and pursuit of education as “inadequate.”

“You have a 55-year-old man who’s been working at a power plant for 25 years, it more than likely isn’t the truth that he’s going to pursue an associate degree in IT. It’s just not going to happen,” he said. “Although those services were offered to us, I don’t think a whole lot of people took advantage of it.” 

Coldwell said Page would instead benefit from opportunities to recruit new industry. He pointed to the recent opening of the ZenniHome factory at the old NGS site as a step in the right direction.  

“We still would take the industries that employ 50 people, 100 people, 25 people over the 600 people. We’ve seen what happens when an industry like that closes down and leaves town,” he said. “What happens is basically a lot of the families stay here and the people that worked for SRP either went to the Valley, went to Salt Lake, and then they come home on the weekends. But consequently, you’re missing half the family.” 

Page City Councilor Richard Yanke said the 600 or so people who worked at NGS were paid “very, very well,” and those sorts of jobs have not been replaced in the region.

“When those jobs left this area, we had to focus and redirect most of our energy into the tourism industry, which, as you know, tourism does not pay a lot of money to people who run tours, who work in hotels, who work in restaurants. So, we don’t have the high-paying jobs that we lost,” he said. 

However, Yanke added that ZenniHome, which produces prefabricated homes, is planning on employing around 100 people with good-paying jobs. 

“We would like to see more industries like that come into the community. We’ve been recruiting, we’ve been trying to find them to come in and say, here, this is what we have, we want you to come into our community,” he said.

Page City Councilor David Auge said that one of the biggest impacts of the plant’s closure was splitting up families.

“I know of several who work during the week down in Phoenix or other places, and they come home on weekends, or they come home for a couple days in the middle of the week, so you don’t have the family unit for sports and that type of thing,” he said, adding that family members moving out of the Page area for higher paying jobs also affected local retail businesses.

City Councilor Brian Carey said he sees Page as a city that has had “a lot of strength” in terms of building and operating Glen Canyon Dam and NGS, and he would like to see that strength directed in somewhere constructive. 

He said he recently toured the ZenniHome factory and thinks there’s more space for development at the old NGS site. He called on ACC to assist Page with partnerships that would benefit the region.

“Great opportunity for partnerships if you guys can work across borders, so to speak, on that,” Carey said. 

Colin Keisling, the area coordinator for the Boilermakers Western States Joint Apprenticeship, said the closure of NGS was “very detrimental” to Page.

“I’ve lost a lot of friends. My son and my daughter lost some of their very closest friends when they had to move from town. It’s heartbreaking,” Keisling said.

“What SRP did for us here was very huge, the sports aspect of it, sponsoring our people, putting money into the community, the tax base that they supplied to this community was huge, and it’s irreplaceable. The rug was pulled out from under us here. It happened so fast. We weren’t prepared for the next step.” 

He asked the commission to work with small communities like Holbrook, Arizona, where power plants are slated to close, to help them make the transition to a new economy. 

“I’m speaking not so much on behalf of what we can do here in Page to make things better … but to not have the rugs pulled out from the communities that are going to be devastated, these small communities like Holbrook that have these little powerhouses there that, that is the community, that’s all they have,” Keisling said. 

“To be able to take technology that already exists, like carbon capture and sequestration and to use that in those facilities to create jobs that are going to last for generations further, that will help them transition, that will create jobs that will keep people in the community that can make their community continue to grow.”

Adrian Herder from the Hard Rock Mesa area on the Navajo Nation spoke on behalf of the nonprofit organization Tó Nizhóní Ání, which translates as Sacred Water Speaks. He asked the ACC to support funding for coal-impacted communities and for utilities meet their corporate responsibility. 

“For nearly half a century, communities like mine have had our coal and water used by utility companies to provide cheap power and water to utility customers throughout Arizona,” he said. “As a regulating authority, it is only fit that the Arizona Corporation Commission paves the way for a better future by directing Arizona’s utilities to follow through with their responsibilities in planning for a just and equitable transition for troubled communities just like mine.”

Yolanda Bileen from Kaibeto said the power plant’s shutdown “impacted greatly” on the Navajo Nation. 

“It did hurt families, separation of families. I know that for a fact because I see it in our small town. Parents have left their children behind, grandmas are taking care of the children, the grandchildren,” she said. 

She said her father worked at NGS for 20 years as a maintenance mechanic and “had good stories about his job as he worked there for years and years.” With a vacuum left by the power plant’s closure, she asked the ACC whether there were opportunities for job recruitment or education on the Navajo Nation.

“Where can children succeed and eventually have some accomplishments and come back to the reservation and help their own people?” she asked. “I’m saying this on behalf of the small community that we live in in Kaibeto, Arizona.”

Louis Dodson Jr., the business manager of Boilermakers Local 4 in Page, said NGS was the “bread and butter for people that lived here in the community and the surrounding areas.” In recent years, membership in the local union chapter has dropped from 1,500 to 300.  

While many people took SRP up on its offer to allow workers to relocated to the Phoenix area, many others were not able to do so. 

“Not all went. Some took a layoff or retired due to age. Some didn’t go because they had livestock or they’re taking care of their elders,” he said. 

Dodson said his wife was among those who did relocate to the Valley, forcing them to take out a second mortgage in the Phoenix area. 

“I was born and raised here, my grandkids go to school here, so I have a mortgage here. Now, every weekend we either make a decision who’s going to travel or who’s going to come back or am I going to take the grandkids down for a visit. So that’s pretty tough,” he said.  

Dodson said that since the closure of NGS, there’s no need for his office to be in Page anymore, and it will soon move to Salt Lake City, Utah. He won’t follow the move, since it would require him to take out a third mortgage, which he can’t afford.

The office’s move will have a negative impact on local training programs for welders, he said.

“[The Page High School] curriculum only takes them so far in the welding program. We’d take about a dozen or so students to our training center and teach them further to educate them to do the safety program,” he said.

“Out of 11 students just recently, nine of them signed up as an apprenticeship. They’re out there in the work force. They became journeymen, and they are travelling the roads. We travel a lot. We have to. There’s nothing here anymore.”

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