Seven Shonto Chapter officials, staff, two Peabody Energy employees and a representative from Navajo National Monument visited the Navajo Generating Station (NGS) last week to learn about its history, pollution controls, economic importance and Navajo employment.
During the campaign season, Congresswoman-elect Ann Kirkpatrick met with managers and toured the plant.
In October, Navajo Nation Council Delegate Leonard Tsosie, a member of the Resources & Economic Development Committee, visited to get specific information about water use, power distribution, ownership and Navajo employment.
Of NGS's 526 employees, 86 percent are Navajo. In the last five years, NGS has trained more than 250 new workers through Navajo preference - 100 percent of the incoming work force.
In November, NGS Arizona Speaker of the House Andy Tobin, Senator-elect Kelli Ward, Representatives-elect Doug Coleman, Paul Boyer, Robert Thorpe, Rosanna Gabaldon, Andrea Dalessandro, Jonathan Larkin, Brenda Barton, legislative staff Tammy Stowe and Kelly Townsend all visited the plant.
Also in November, Coconino County District 5 Supervisor Lena Fowler, County Emergency Management Director Robert Rowley, County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council Program Manager Toby Olvera, and County Public Information Officer Nathan Gonzales spent three hours at NGS as part of a northern Arizona fact-finding visit to Page, Marble Canyon, Jacob Lake and Fredonia.
Shonto officials wanted to know about the Black Mesa/Lake Powell Railroad that delivers coal from the Peabody Coal silos on Highway 160 to NGS.
A portion of the 78-mile long track goes through their community, and they said residents have questions about sound, vibration and road crossings.
NGS Railroad Manager David Tso explained the railroad makes three trips a day, usually seven days a week. NGS is responsible for the right-of-way fence along both sides of the track and workers maintain it regularly.
Train engineers are required by law to sound their horns at every crossing for safety to warn drivers who may be about to cross the tracks, he added.
NGS Environmental and Safety Manager Paul Ostapuk told the Shonto visitors that the power plant was built on the Navajo Nation to save new hydroelectric dams from being constructed on the Colorado River and flooding part of the Grand Canyon.
"It was part of an environmental compromise," he said. "There was water in Lake Powell, there was coal on the Navajo Nation, the town of Page existed with services and a paved highway, and there was strong interest in creating some kind of economic opportunity for the Navajo Nation. So that's the roots right there of NGS."
After meeting NGS managers and an hour-long introductory presentation, Shonto officials put on hardhats and safety glasses to take a tour past the huge pulverizers that crush coal to the consistency of baby powder. The powder is then blown into immense boilers that heat tubes containing water to produce superheated steam.
Once at 1,005 degrees, the steam is used to turn the blades of giant turbines at 3,600 revolutions per minute. The turbines then power generators that make electricity.
Next, the group walked along the massive turbine deck past NGS's three huge turbines. Ostapuk explained that the plant's turbines and generators are capable of making enough reliable "baseload" electricity for 3 million people.
"What that means is we're running 24/7," he said. "Our mission is to be online 24 hours a day, all seasons of the year."
Shonto Chapter President Felix Fuller, an NGS chemist, showed the visitors the water laboratories where he works. Water used in the production of electricity at NGS must be absolutely purified down to the parts per billion level and free of any mineral content, he said. That prevents deposit buildups to keep equipment operating in good condition.
NGS has four laboratories where water, coal and pollution control chemistry is monitored. Four of NGS's six chemists are Navajos.
Shonto Vice President Elizabeth Whitethorne-Benally, recently elected to succeed Fuller as president, said her impression of NGS is better than she expected.
"Actually, I'm impressed. I would have to say that," she said. "It was a very good tour. The one that really made an impression on me is the recycling of water. Whatever is the byproduct of the plant is re-used."
NGS uses water from Lake Powell in the production of electricity. Water is not wasted. It is recovered along with any storm water runoff and then recycled back in to the process using brine concentrators and a salt crystallizer.
Because Shonto is considering building a commercial project, she wanted to learn how NGS treats sewage water to see if the process would be applicable to business development.
Whitethorne-Benally said people tend to view NGS as "a mysterious place on the other side of the fence" but that visiting and talking to employees in their own language helps to simplify it. She said she would recommend that other chapter and tribal decision-makers tour NGS.
"Oh, of course, because they'd get enlightened and a better idea what goes on here at the plant," she said.