ALBUQUERQUE – Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly said on June 11 that he supports public hearings for his proposed plan to build a railroad from the Four Corners area to his home town, Thoreau, N.M.
Shelly announced his plans to build a railroad to transport coal from BHP Billiton’s Navajo Coal Mine, produce from Navajo Agricultural Products Industry, oil and gas during a meeting with Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Company, Vice President Rex Lee Jim, NM Indian Affairs Secretary Art Allison, NM State Reps. Sharon Clahchischilliage and Patricia Lundstrom and other community leaders on June 6.
The railroad would connect with BNSF railroad line that crosses the country.
Navajo Council Delegate Russell Begaye, who represents Shiprock, N.M., which is in the Four Corners area, said he was hoping that Shelly would hold public hearings on his proposed industrial park, especially since he held no public hearings on the proposed purchase of BHP coal mine.
On June 11, Shelly was among seven national tribal leaders and officials who participated in a round-table discussion on “Economic and Energy Challenges and Opportunities for Indian Country.”
The tribal representatives agreed that for successful economic development in Indian Country that tribal elected officials must involve communities in their proposed economic development plans and that means talking with them.
BSNF Regional Manager of Economic Development LaTonya Finch stated in a June 6 press release that BNSF plans to invest in four growth areas – Gallup, Belen, Las Cruses and Clovis.
Finch explained that Gallup includes Shelly’s proposed 300-acre Thoreau industrial park, which would serve as a railway port.
Allison stated that Gov. Susan Martinez supports the industrial park and building a railroad from the Four Corners area to Thoreau.
Shelly said that the industrial park is scheduled for completion in 2014.
Erny Zah, tribal executive office communications director, said on June 12 that the tribe’s purchase of BHP Navajo Coal Mine “is not finalized but it looks like it’ll be purchased.”
Zah’s statement came during a workshop, “Energy Case Study: A Comprehensive Energy Approach: Coal, Natural Gas, Oil and Renewables,” at the “Developing Tribal Energy Resources & Economies” conference at the Sandia Resort and Casino.
He also explained that the route of the proposed railroad from Four Corners to Thoreau was selected because of the ease of obtaining rights-of-ways.
Another reason was because the railroad route cuts straight north and south from the coal mine to Thoreau, which sits along Interstate 40, Zah noted.
He added that the tribal investment in the proposed industrial park would be about $13 million.
But Zah said the industrial park would increase business “three-fold” and that involves 23 vendors, which are “watching” the project.
The proposed price for BHP coal mine is $85 million.
Shelly said that the tribe plans to pay for the mine from state and federal tax exemptions for tribes and the sale of its coal from outside sources.
The sole customer for Navajo mine has been the Four Corners Power Plant.
Shelly confirmed on June 11 that one of the final destinations for the coal that would be transported via rail from Navajo mine could be China.
“When you got a product you have to move it,” Zah said. “It’s that simple.”
But Ed Becenti, Navajo Reservation grassroots activist and community organizer disagrees,
Becenti sent out an mass email to other grassroots groups and individuals calling for them to “stop BS Navajo coal to China.”
BS is the acronym for Ben Shelly.
Becenti also pointed to community organizers in Oregon State that stopped a similar proposal to transport coal via rail from Montana and Wyoming and then onto huge cargo ships that would pass through Washington and Oregon for sale to Asia.
The coal companies that were involved in the coal shipments to Asia were Arch Cola and Peabody. Peabody strip mines coal from Black Mesa on the Navajo and Hopi Reservations.
Navajo Generating Station, near Page, Ariz., is the sole buyer of Peabody’s coal.
Becenti said the people of Oregon blocked the coal railroad because it would have polluted the land, air, water and communities along the coal transportation route with toxic coal dust.
He added that during the Oregon opposition to the proposed coal railroad, BNSF issued a statement on their website acknowledging the danger of coal dust to railroad tracks.
“BNSF has determined that coal dust poses a serious threat to the stability of the track structure and thus to the operational integrity of our lines in the Powder River Basin,” BNSF stated.
(This story was published in the Gallup, N.M., Post on 6/13/13. The Gallup Post is now sold at the Window Rock, Ariz., Basha’s and Tse Bonito, N.M., Conoco.)