Navajo council approves lease extension for Arizona coal power plant

The lease for the 1970s-era plant is set to expire in two years

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WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. (AP) — The Navajo Nation Council has approved a lease extension that will allow a coal-fired power plant in northeastern Arizona to continue operating through December 2019.

The 18-4 Council vote came Monday night after about eight hours of debate. It means at least 700 jobs at the Navajo Generating Station near Page and the coal mine that supplies it won't be immediately lost.

The lease for the 1970s-era plant is set to expire in two years. The plant's owners announced in February they would close it because cheaper power from natural gas is readily available, and they told the Council Monday they'd shut it down this year if they didn't get an extension.

The owners said it will take about two years to tear down the massive plant.

The Navajo Generating Station is owned by three Arizona utilities, one in Nevada and the federal Bureau of Reclamation and is operated by Phoenix-based Salt River Project. It has been a major provider of power used to pump water from the Colorado River to Phoenix and Tucson through the Central Arizona Project.

The decision to close the plant left Navajo lawmakers scrambling to save the jobs it supports and the millions of dollars in annual tax revenue that support government spending.

"You all know the history of the reason we are why here today," Council speaker LoRenzo Bates told fellow members before the Council debate. "If it fails we can begin to expect an impact beginning in 2018. It will have a ripple effect — it will impact the central government," he said.

If the owners sign off on the lease extension, the tribe will have time to either find a new operator or plan for life after the plant. The Navajo Nation hopes to keep it open at least through 2030, although how it will find a buyer for a more-expensive coal power facility remains unclear. The Nation has asked the federal government for assistance.

Owners want a decision on a new operator by Oct. 1, said Jared Touchin, a tribal council spokesman.

Environmentalists hailed the possible closure of the plant as an opportunity to find new job sources that are better for the environment. Jihan Gearon, executive director of the Black Mesa Water Coalition, has criticized the plant's water pollution and the environmental impact of heavy mining of coal.

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