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San Juan County leaders discuss jobs, economic recovery with New Mexico lawmakers

Hannah Grover
Farmington Daily Times

FARMINGTON — State lawmakers are already preparing for the legislative session that starts in January. Speaker of the House Brian Egolf met with San Juan County leaders this week to discuss jobs and economic recovery.

Topics covered included the need to expand broadband in under-served areas, San Juan County's hopes to attract a petrochemical plant and build a railroad to move products to market and the city of Farmington's ambitious plans to retrofit the San Juan Generating Station.

Egolf hosted the roundtable discussion using Zoom and broadcast it on Facebook live on Sept. 2.

He said the discussion was part of an outreach plan that started in December 2016.

“It is an effort that has taken me and many of my colleagues in the House and the Senate all over the state of New Mexico, from Shiprock to Chaparral and many, many places in between,” Egolf said.

Speaker Brian Egolf participates in a virtual listening tour, Sept. 2, 2020.

He said during these events legislators meet with local elected officials, business owners, entrepreneurs and economic development professionals. The lawmakers always ask for input on ways state government can help improve business conditions and partner with local leaders.

Rep. Anthony Allison, D-Fruitland, said he received lots of ideas for legislation from the discussion on Sept. 2.

“We had made a commitment to go to every county in New Mexico before the end of the year and then the pandemic occurred, and those plans went out the window, so we’re doing them virtually now,” Egolf said.

Egolf anticipates the January session may be conducted virtually at least part of the time like the special session that occurred this summer. He said that makes it more important for local leaders to begin educating legislators early on about issues.

Egolf encouraged the city of Farmington to present information on Enchant Energy’s proposal to retrofit the San Juan Generating Station with carbon capture technology to interim legislative committees like the Water and Natural Resources Committee and the Rural and Economic Development Committee.

Farmington Mayor Nate Duckett said the city plans to ask the Legislature for a waiver to the emission requirements in the Energy Transition Act that would allow the power plant to continue operations while Enchant Energy is retrofitting it with carbon capture technology. Once the retrofit is complete, the power plant will be in compliance with the emissions requirements that go into effect in 2023.

Other topics discussed included plans for a petrochemical plant and broadband connectivity.

County needs support for petrochemical plant

County Commission Chairman Jack Fortner said Egolf mentioned the possibility of attracting a petrochemical business during a meeting more than a year ago with county officials.

“We took that idea and we’ve run with it,” he said.

San Juan County Commission Chairman Jack Fortner, Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez and Vice President Myron Lizer participate in a signing ceremony for a memorandum of understanding, Thursday, Feb. 20, 2020, at San Juan College's School of Energy.

The county has since signed a memorandum of understanding with Navajo Nation for a railroad right of way that would allow the petrochemical plant to export products from the area.

“What we really need is we need support,” Fortner said. “We don’t need money. We just need the support of the state so that the folks that we’re going to be reaching out to know that the state supports us in this endeavor.”

MORE:Navajo Nation, San Juan County say deal could make railroad a reality

He said a petrochemical plant is the only way that a railroad spur could be built connecting San Juan County with the Gallup area.

Broadband needed for students, economy

At the end of the meeting, Rep. D. Wonda Johnson, D-Rehoboth, who represents a portion of San Juan County, said she agrees with the various local leaders who highlighted challenges with broadband infrastructure. She said the three greatest infrastructure needs in the area are water, electricity and broadband.

Jim Crowley

County Commissioner Jim Crowley, who lives in Aztec city limits, brought up broadband.

“My internet connection is unstable,” he said. “We have real problems with getting good connectivity in the Four Corners.”

MORE:Affordability, access among the broadband challenges New Mexicans faces

County Manager Mike Stark elaborated on this and said improving broadband connectivity and access could help with education as well as economic diversification, including recruiting remote workers to live in the area.

In addition, he said several data centers have expressed interest in locating in San Juan County because of the high elevation, which reduces cooling costs, and the access to reliable electricity.

Dr. Toni Hopper Pendergrass

San Juan College President Toni Hopper Pendergrass asked if there are opportunities to have a statewide broadband initiative. She said the college allows students to check out laptops and hotspots for use. On Sept. 1, the Board of Trustees approved spending $250,000 to purchase more laptops and hotspots.

“This is not a sustainable option for us because the demand is so high for wi-fi access,” she said.

Sherrick Roanhorse, Navajo Preparatory School board president, supported the idea of a statewide broadband plan and presented internet access as a matter of equity. He said Navajo Prep has 260 students and less than half of those students are San Juan County residents. Some students live in remote areas and broadband connectivity has been a challenge as students participate in online learning.

“I think there’s an opportunity to collaborate with the Navajo Nation and other San Juan stakeholders,” he said.

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Delegate Eugenia Charles-Newton, left, who represents Shiprock Chapter, speaks to U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., about the condition of the Shiprock Police Department during a tour on March 22, 2019.

Navajo Nation Council Delegate Eugenia Charles-Newton echoed Roanhorse’s comments about collaboration between the Tribe and the state. Like Crowley, she experienced internet connectivity issues while participating in the Zoom conference.

“If you travel from Farmington to Crownpoint, there is a good stretch of road, I’d say about five miles, where when you’re driving your phone will indicate that you’re in an international zone and you cannot make any phone calls unless your phone plan allows for international calls to be made,” she said.

She said there are also many dead zones without any reception. Hot spots do not help in dead zones because there is no reception.

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