Will: EPA rules will rain ruin on Ariz. tribes

By George Will, Columbian Syndicated Columnist

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PHOENIX -- The federal government is a bull that has found yet another china shop, this time in Arizona. It seems determined to inflict, for angelic motives and progressive goals, economic damage on this state. And economic and social damage on Native Americans, who over the years have experienced quite enough of that at Washington, D.C.'s hands.

The gain from this pain? The most frequently cited study says "research to date … is inconclusive as to whether" there would be "any perceptible improvement in visibility at the Grand Canyon and other areas of concern." The Environmental Protection Agency says the Navajo Generating Station is "near" 11 national parks, several of which are 175 miles distant.

The NGS on Navajo land in northern Arizona burns coal from the Kayenta Mine, which is co-owned by the Navajo and Hopi nations. The EPA is pondering whether all three units of the NGS should be required to install the "best available" emission-control technologies, perhaps costing more than $1.1 billion. More than 80 percent of the power plant's employees are Navajo, many of whom speak Navajo to help preserve the nation's culture. In 2007, the percentage of the Navajo Nation's population living in poverty was 36.7.

But the Navajos, the plant and the mine that powers it may be sacrificed to this dubious environmental crusade. The new technology would reduce nitrate aerosols. They, however, are responsible for just 4 percent of what is called "light extinction" over the Grand Canyon.

Water falls unbidden from the sky but must be pumped to Arizonans -- Tucson is 2,500 feet above sea level. The NGS provides 95 percent of the power for the pumps of the Central Arizona Project, or CAP, which made Phoenix and most of modern Arizona possible. A study sponsored by the Interior Department estimates that the EPA's mandate might increase the cost of water by as much as 32 percent, hitting agriculture users especially hard. They might be driven back to using scarce ground water -- which was supposed to be protected by the CAP.

An Arizona State University study estimates that between now and 2044, the NGS and the mine will contribute $20 billion to the state's economy and provide 3,000 jobs each year. If there is an NGS. Its site lease expires in 2019. If the EPA mandates the most expensive technologies, each of the NGS owners would have to weigh whether it is sensible to make large capital investments in a plant that might not operate after that. Furthermore, one of the six owners of the NGS is the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, which may be prohibited by California law -- the state may be destitute but it is determined to fix the climate -- from making investments that will extend the life of coal-fired plants.

The Navajo have been here before. EPA regulations caused the closure of the Mohave Generating Station near Laughlin, Nev., which was the sole buyer of coal from the Black Mesa Mine, leading it to cease operations. The mine's land is co-owned by the Navajo and Hopi nations.

This story has become as American as "The Great Gatsby," wherein Tom and Daisy Buchanan "smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness … and let other people clean up the mess they had made."

George F. Will is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Email: georgewill@washpost.com.