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UPPER FRUITLAND — The Navajo Nation's top two leaders reiterated their support of the tribe buying Navajo Mine during a press conference Friday.

Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly and Navajo Nation Council Speaker Johnny Naize told mine employees and top administrators that the tribe still wants the operation, which BHP Billiton, currently owns

Delegate LoRenzo Bates organized the media event after two regional newspapers quoted Shelly as stating that he would not support the mine purchase if the purchase agreement came to his desk for his approval.

"There's concern of whether or not the Navajo Nation, the president's side and also the speaker's side, are united in the initiative of purchasing Navajo Mine," Bates said. "By the president and the speaker being here this morning is to clarify that we are united as a nation."

Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly
Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly (Daily Times file photo)

Bates, who represents the Upper Fruitland Chapter, is also the primary sponsor of legislation that requests $4.1 million from the Unreserved Undesignated Fund Balance to fund the Navajo Transitional Energy Company LLC, which is the tribal entity overseeing the acquisition of Navajo Mine.

The bill is posted on the council's website for public commenting. As of Friday, the UUFB is at $7.7 million.

Shelly said he would support purchasing the mine if the council meets two conditions. The first is that the council pass the Navajo Nation Energy Policy of 2013, and the second is that the council "seriously consider" reestablishing the Desert Rock energy project.

The tribe has not updated its energy policy since its creation in 1980.

Delegate Roscoe Smith, who is vice chairman of the Resources and Development Committee, is sponsoring the bill containing the energy policy, which is waiting for consideration by the RDC, the Naabikiyati Committee and the council.

Shelly warned that the future of the mine depends on having the updated energy policy in place.

"Since Oct. 31 is the deadline for this purchase for BHP, I need that energy policy now," Shelly said.

The president said he supported purchasing the mine when he was first approached with the idea, but, after looking at the future of coal, his opinion started to change.

With federal air standards becoming stricter and states turning to alternative energy sources, Shelly said he understands that burning coal is no longer normal practice. He said he has been examining alternatives for the mine's future, including power sources that use carbon capture technology, exporting coal to China and gasification.

"We need to support jobs that will last, not short term, and the nation needs to grow, too. We need to get out of this handout to the government," Shelly said.

Meanwhile, Naize gave no ultimatums in issuing his support for acquiring the mine.

He explained that the due diligence team has closely examined the purchase, and the mine is necessary to sustain tribal revenues and continued employment of Navajos.

"We appreciate the mine. We appreciate the plant, and the Navajo Nation will not survive without these industries," he said. "The Navajo Nation will do whatever it can to complete this agreement with BHP and also keep the Four Corners Power Plant running."

Unlike Shelly, Naize did not talk about any alternatives for keeping the mine in operation. Rather, he sympathized with the Four Corners Power Plant for having to retrofit its units with pollution controls called selective catalytic reduction.

"I don't know what it is," he said. "All I know is that it's expensive, and I feel for Four Corners, and I hope they'll put those in just to comply with the (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)."

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 and nsmith@daily-times.com. Follow her @nsmithdt on Twitter.