updated 7/20/2007 12:47:30 PM ET 2007-07-20T16:47:30

With population swelling across the West, supporters of a proposed coal-fired power plant on the Navajo Nation reservation say the thirst for electricity is becoming too much for existing plants.

But some Navajos and other opponents of the $3 billion Desert Rock Energy Project argue they should not have to sacrifice their health or environment to provide power for cities thousands of miles away.

"We're the ones who have to have all the health problems and we're going to be the ones who have all the pollution," Nadine Padilla of the Sacred Alliance for Grassroots Equality Council said Thursday at a news conference before a public hearing on the project. "And for what? For Phoenix and Las Vegas to have electricity?"

Both sides are getting a chance to speak this week and next at a series of hearings on a draft environmental impact statement for the plant, a joint venture between Houston-based Sithe Global Power LLC and the tribe's Dine Power Authority.

The tribe's power authority and Sithe have touted Desert Rock as the cleanest coal-burning plant in the nation and a much-needed source of jobs and revenue for the Navajo Nation, where unemployment hovers around 50 percent.

"You don't have to go very far to realize that jobs and unemployment and economic development are missing from the Navajo Nation," Sithe spokesman Frank Maisano said.

Alternatives available?
But Padilla and representatives from a host of environmental groups are urging leaders around the nation to look to renewable resources, such as wind and solar energy, to produce electricity.

They said setting standards — like New Mexico, Colorado and other states have done — requiring utilities to get a certain amount of their power from renewable energy sources would lead to new jobs, billions of dollars in capital investment and a means to tackle global warming.

The groups complained that the Bureau of Indian Affairs did not adequately review alternatives to Desert Rock or fully consider cultural resources in the area when preparing the environmental impact statement.

Maisano said Navajo tribal leaders invited the company to the reservation in an effort to spur economic development and create a source of revenue for tribal coffers. He said Sithe has listened to concerns of Navajos and environmentalists and made changes to Desert Rock.

"They complained about water issues. We met them more than halfway and proposed an air-cooled plant, which reduces water use 85 percent," he said. "And all the water that it does use, by the way, goes to pollution controls, which is the second area. They wanted an array of pollution controls. We put everything and more on there."

Cleaner than nearby plants
Although Desert Rock would emit less pollution than two nearby existing power plants, opponents say it would still add to the carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, mercury and other pollutants in the region.

Elouise Brown, a Navajo from northwestern New Mexico who has been fighting Desert Rock, said residents would be open to wind farms or power-generating operations that rely on solar energy.

"We're open to any kind of economic develop as long as you're not trying to kill us," she said.

Despite the benefits of electricity generated from renewable sources, Maisano said states that are pushing for green power still have to meet massive growth needs.

"Those are possibilities that have to go forward," he said. "Now, is that going to meet the needs that are out there? No. The baseload needs are so great you can have three or four Desert Rocks and still have needs."

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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