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Federal judge dismisses case regarding power plant, coal mine
FARMINGTON — A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit brought by environmental groups against federal agencies for the extension of operations for the Four Corners Power Plant and Navajo Mine.
Attorneys for the Western Environmental Law Center and the Center for Biological Diversity filed the lawsuit in April 2016 and on behalf of plaintiffs Diné Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment, San Juan Citizens Alliance, Center for Biological Diversity, Amigos Bravos and the Sierra Club.
The lawsuit named the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the U.S. Department of the Interior, the Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation and Enforcement, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and then Interior Secretary Sally Jewell as defendants.
The five environmental groups claimed federal agencies violated the Endangered Species Act, the National Environmental Policy Act and the Administrative Procedure Act for approving the 25-year extension of operations for the power plant and the expansion of strip mining at the mine.
U.S. District Court Judge Steven P. Logan ordered the case dismissed without prejudice, meaning it cannot be refiled based on the same grounds, on Sept. 11.
Logan also granted a motion by the Navajo Transitional Energy Company, which owns the mine, to dismiss the case based on its interest in the litigation but it cannot be a party due to sovereign immunity.
Although NTEC was not named in the complaint, the court granted a limited motion to intervene in October 2016.
NTEC subsequently filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit in November 2016, citing it is a required party to the case due to its financial interest in the power plant.
Navajo Mine is the sole supplier of coal to the power plant and both are sources of royalties, taxes and jobs for the Navajo Nation.
While NTEC has an interest in the lawsuit, it cannot be a party to the litigation because it possesses sovereign immunity as an extension of the Navajo Nation, the court ruled.
In the 8-page ruling, NTEC is described as an "arm" of the Navajo Nation due to its creation by the tribe, its organization under tribal law and its profits benefit the tribe.
"With regard to shared sovereign immunity, the Navajo Nation explicitly vested NTEC with sovereign immunity," the court order states.
In a statement the company said, "The court's ruling makes clear that NTEC's sovereign immunity trumps plaintiff's attempts to circumvent governmental decisions made by the Navajo Nation."
The company added it can continue its business of providing the tribe with economic benefits and develop alternative energy sources for the future.
The Interior Department did not return a request for comment on Sept. 12.
Michael Saul, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, said on Sept. 12 the organization received the judge's decision and is reviewing it with the groups for possible options.
Saul said he had no further comment about the ruling.
Brian Sweeney, communications director for the Western Environmental Law Center, said in an email Sept. 12 the center still needs to discuss the decision with their clients and it was unknown at that time if they will appeal.
Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636.