Coal executive Norman Benally retires after working in coal for 43 years

James Fenton
The Daily Times

“I started out at the bottom and worked my way up,” Benally said. “I was hired as a laborer to clean toilets, dig ditches, whatever labor does. I worked my way up in maintenance, into supervision-level positions. Later I went into senior management ranks as an executive.”

At age 20, Benally started with Utah Construction and Mining Co. as a laborer. The construction and mining company was later owned by General Electric before being purchased by BHP in 1984. BHP merged with the United Kingdom-based Billiton, creating BHP Billiton in 2001. New Mexico Coal, a subsidiary of BHP Billiton, provides coal to two area power plants, San Juan Generating Station and Four Corners Power Plant.

Climbing the ladder at BHP Billiton was possible thanks to the company's education program that covered 75 percent of employees' tuition costs, Benally said.

Born in Farmington in 1952, Benally spent part of his childhood in Shiprock and in Northern Utah when he went to live with a Mormon family as part of the Indian Placement Program, which was run by the LDS church.

He graduated from Shiprock High School in 1970 before he landed the laborer position at Utah Mines. He later earned a bachelor's degree in business administration from the University of Phoenix, which helped catapult him into the executive ranks, he said.

Benally credits his staying power to the Australian-based company that he said values the community — and the people who live and work in it — first.

“The thing that kept me there was that the company treated the local Navajos, and the community, really well,” Benally said. “Everything I was a part of was the BHP charter. One of the charter values was to value the relationship to the community in which we operate.”

Benally said that the 2013 sale of Navajo Mine to Navajo Transitional Energy Company, a tribal enterprise created by the Navajo Nation, is one example of the company's commitment to the community.

Located in the chapter lands of Nenahnezad, San Juan, Tiis Tsoh Sikaad and Upper Fruitland, the mine supplies coal solely to the Four Corners Power Plant. Each year, the mine contributes millions in royalties and taxes from mining operations to the Navajo Nation's general fund account. In 2014, the tribal government reaped $37 million from the mine alone.

“Rather than closing the mine, we looked very innovatively to keep the mine going,” he said.

Benally said his lobby work for the company at one point gave him a thorough understanding of mining operations.

“Many people do not understand the extent to which coal companies go to protect the environment,” he said. “It is often said that we do not take care of the environment. In reality, the environment is one of the first things we take a look at, making sure that the laws and regulations are met. We work with regulators quite a bit.”

Benally saw the company implement pollution controls and enhanced reclamation efforts in recent years and said the future of the mineral is assured until a reliable replacement takes its place.

Recent federal emissions restrictions — like the Environmental Protection Agency's Regional Haze Rule — on coal-fired plants and low natural gas prices have driven companies to scale down coal mining operations. Natural gas, which is abundant in the San Juan Basin, could offer a cleaner source of power production than coal. Natural gas emits less carbon dioxide than coal, but Benally said that coal, mined responsibly, will continue to be a reliable and cost-effective fuel source for power in the region.

“I truly believe that until somebody brings forth a fuel product that will generate power like coal with the same economic dollar value, I think coal will continue to be around,” Benally said.

Benally said that mining and burning the finite resource is a right, but also a responsibility.

“How do we properly take care of coal and what are the right things to do to take care of the environment and live within the boundaries that regulators have put forth,” Benally said. “If we use it in a manner we have been given, honoring Mother Earth, Father Sky and the four sacred directions, and say thank you for this resource that has helped people's lives, then we are doing right, the right thing. Being a tribal member, our elders have informed me that coal is a resource from Mother Nature for everybody to use.”

Pat Risner, BHP Billiton's New Mexico Coal Division asset president, said that Benally's long tenure at the company is an example of the company's ability to serve the community.

“Here's a guy whose story is one of the company's finest,” Risner said. “Norman is a good example of the importance of this business. What he's done, getting his education while working. Norman took all that and gave back to the community.”

James Fenton is the business editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4621 and . Follow him @fentondt on Twitter.