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The Daily Times toured the San Juan Generating Station. Here's a look inside the coal-fired power plant at the center of the state's energy debate. Sam Ribakoff, Farmington Daily Times

Speakers highlight importance of partnering with Navajo Nation

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FARMINGTON — Brian Condit first stepped into the San Juan Generating Station in 1978 when it was relatively new. Condit worked there as an electrician.

“They didn’t used to run the power plant on firewood as some of the old timers would have you believe,” he joked while speaking to the Energy Transition Act advisory committee on Oct. 29.

The committee met for the first time on Oct. 29 to gather information about the future impacts of the San Juan Generating Station closure and what is being done to prepare for those impacts. The committee will then provide recommendations to the state for how to spend funds created by the Energy Transition Act. 

More: The Energy Transition Act outlined a path away from coal. The first steps are underway

Information presented during the meeting, as well as the minutes, will be available at dws.state.nm.us/eta. The conversations included discussion of petrochemical development, railroads, outdoor recreation and the film industry as well as renewable energy. 

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Brian Condit spoke on behalf of unions during the Energy Transition Act advisory committee meeting this week in Farmington. Hannah Grover, hgrover@daily-times.com

Unions focused on worker training, healthcare 

Condit works as executive director of the New Mexico Building and Construction Trades Council, an organization representing unions in New Mexico including the unions that represent employees at both the San Juan Mine and the San Juan Generating Station.

These workers are facing an uncertain future after Public Service Company of New Mexico announced plans to close the San Juan Generating Station in 2022. That could mean most of the employees at both the mine and the power plant will lose their jobs, since the mine’s sole customer is the power plant. 

"Although not many in this room love the idea of the closure, the decision by the utility has been made and with that comes many challenges and, hopefully, opportunities," Condit said.

Condit said there is a labor shortage in the construction industry statewide and nationwide. He said the unions will work to provide a bridge for the mine and power plant workers to enter the construction industry using apprenticeship programs.

"We have hundreds of job opportunities, apprenticeship opportunities," he said.

In addition, Condit said the national laboratories in New Mexico need to hire 40 journeyman electricians.

Condit said another focus his organization has is ensuring workers have health insurance.

"At Westmoreland, the day you're laid off is the day your healthcare stops," he said. Westmoreland is the owner of the San Juan Mine.

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A Navajo Nation council delegate said it is important to include Navajo people in discussions about the transition away from coal. Hannah Grover, hgrover@daily-times.com

Navajo Nation council delegate makes several requests to committee

Navajo Nation Council Delegate Carl Slater offered advice and made several requests when he spoke to the committee.

“One of my recommendations to the group is that no matter what you do (don’t) only concentrate on one industry,” he said.

Slater said there is not a single industry that will replace the lost revenue and the lost jobs.

“Everyone has selective hearing for what they want to hear,” Slater said. “I haven’t heard many renewables folks say that this is going to fix all the income and all the jobs and everything like that. It’s potentially a paradigm shift in how we think about what and how we power our community. And I see renewables being a very good way to reinforce our traditional lifestyles and our traditional values.”

More: New Navajo Nation Council delegate sworn in

He said while renewable energy development will not replace all the jobs lost when the San Juan Generating Station closes, it will provide the opportunity for some people to move off of the grid.

Slater also spoke about tourism and highlighted the vibrant tourism industry in communities bordering Navajo Nation, especially mountain bike tourism.

“My advice to the committee is those ideas are, I think, a little different and new to a lot of our communities,” Slater said. “So if you receive hesitance and reluctance by community members it doesn’t allow you to just desist from having that conversation. You have an obligation to meet people halfway and go even beyond that in how we communicate the potential benefits and the potential drawbacks that may come from this type of development.”

Slater said different communication styles work better with different levels at the Navajo Nation. For example, he said chapter houses tend to have more of the elders who don’t necessarily speak fluent English. He encouraged committee members to be aware of where they are presenting and to change their communication style based on that. He also asked the committee if it could visit Window Rock, Arizona, and present to the Navajo Nation council.

At the same time, Slater encouraged the committee to have discussions with young Navajo and suggested reaching out to college students.

“There are ideas that need to be addressed with the youth, and they’re the ones who are going to come inherit the situation and hopefully build something beautiful,” Slater said.

His final request was for the state to support independent studies of potential contamination at the mine and power plant sites.

Navajo Nation mentioned as an important partner

The conversation returned to the Navajo Nation multiple times, and many presenters said any economic diversification efforts should include the Navajo Nation.

Four Corners Economic Development Director Arvin Trujillo spoke about building a relationship with the Navajo Nation.

“The biggest initiative that I’m working on right now is really reforming San Juan County,” Trujillo said. “Ladies and gentlemen, we have a demilitarized zone here in the county and it’s called the San Juan River. South of the river, what do we call it? Navajo Nation. North of the river, what do we call it? San Juan County. And we do all of our business accordingly.”

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The Energy Transition Act has been described as New Mexico's "Green New Deal," but what does that mean? Hannah Grover, hgrover@daily-times.com

Hannah Grover covers government for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652 or via email at hgrover@daily-times.com.

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