February 21, 2024

Navajo Nation environmentalists are opposing a “self-described jet setter” and French millionaire’s plans for a massive hydropower project they claim will adversely affect the land, water, wildlife, plants and cultural resources of the largest land area held by Indigenous American peoples in the US.

The hydropower project in Black Mesa, Arizona, is awaiting approval by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (Ferc) for preliminary permits and has incited fears over water use in an area already struggling with water accessibility issues.

“It’s really down to water, water, water. Water is the big thing,” said Adrian Herder of Tó Nizhóní Ání, a non-profit on the Navajo Reservation in north-east Arizona. “In their application, they mentioned Black Mesa groundwater and so that was already a concern for us, given that we already are struggling with water availability in our communities.”

The Navajo Nation sent a letter to Ferc opposing the application by Nature and People First in December 2022, though there has not yet been any approval or legislation to discuss it within the Navajo Nation Council.

Nature and People First is run and founded by Denis Payre, a French venture capitalist and entrepreneur. In 2006, the Washington Post reported Payre was one of several millionaires fleeing France to avoid its wealth tax, calling Payre a “self-described French jet-setter”.

The organization has secured support from one Navajo Nation chapter for the project, with Herder claiming the developer has used community meetings to portray its critics as opponents to progress and pit Navajos against one another.

Herder said the campaign in opposition to the Black Mesa Pumped Storage Project, #NoBMPSP, started in response to concerns over how many resources the project would use and the lack of consultation with local communities before the preliminary permit filings.

He cited the large amount of water the proposed project would use, especially given the impact coal mining has already had on the area’s water resources.

According to the campaign, the hydropower project would require 126tn gallons of water, three times the water withdrawals from 50 years of coal mining, would industrialize 30 to 40 miles of land with reservoirs, pump stations, electric lines and generators and destroy the wildlife habitats of the endangered Mexican spotted owls, Navajo Sedge and Colorado pikeminnows.

The preliminary permits include building three pumped hydro storage dams along the northeastern edge of Black Mesa, producing electricity for nearby cities outside Navajo Nation, including Phoenix and Tucson.

In July 2023, Tó Nizhóní Ání, Diné Citizens Against Ruining our Environment and the Center for Biological Diversity submitted resolutions from several Navajo Nation chapters to the Ferc opposing the three preliminary permit applications filed by Nature and People First on Navajo Nation land in the Black Mesa area. Nineteen Navajo Nation chapters have filed resolutions opposing the project, according to Herder.

“They are pretty intent on pushing this project through somehow, someway, even though they don’t have a good background knowledge on the resources they are trying to secure,” said Nicole Horseherder, co-founder of Tó Nizhóní Ání.

Kayenta coal mine on the Black Mesa, Navajo reservation, Arizona.
Kayenta coal mine on the Black Mesa, Navajo reservation, Arizona. Photograph: Aurora Photos/Alamy

“The underlying message and intent is: ‘You oppose me, but I’m going to find a way to get you on my side because we are still going to push this project through’”, she added. “That’s not anybody that wants to really work to see if some project is going to be feasible and viable, a person that is intent on pushing some project through one way or another, no matter who opposes him. That’s not the kind of person that we want to work with. So that’s what we’re dealing with right now.”

Horseherder said the campaign against the proposal is focused on researching and educating the communities that will be impacted by the project and that they are currently seeking to get the Ferc to amend their preliminary permit application process to require community consulting and engagement prior to submitting an application.

The proposed major energy project is one of several that have been made on or impacting Navajo land in recent years by energy speculators.

Delores Wilson-Aguirre, co-founder of the Navajo led grassroots group Save the Confluence, has led petition efforts against a project proposed by Pumped Hydro Storage LLC to build a dam on Navajo Nation land on a tributary of the Little Colorado River. She has served as a community organizer in the campaign against the Black Mesa Storage Project.

A mural of a young child reaching out to touch falling rain drops.
Artist Billy Fefer painted a mural on the side of a roadside stand where locals sell items on Navajo Reservation on 5 July 2022 near Cameron, Arizona. Most of Navajo Nation has lived with drought for the past few decades. Photograph: RJ Sangosti/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post/Denver Post/Getty Images

Opposition to the project is based on similar concerns that the project would require massive amounts of water resources on Navajo land for outside use and interests, and that developers have shirked consulting and engaging with community members. Two other proposed dam project proposals on the Little Colorado River were withdrawn in response to opposition urging Ferc to deny preliminary permit applications.

“We’ve dealt with developers before and it’s the same scheme they use. Mainly jobs because we dealt with the project in our area, the Little Colorado River. They didn’t listen to the people,” Wilson-Aguirre told the Guardian. “It’s just a scam all around. We’ve dealt with it firsthand and there is another company trying to come onto our side of the canyon, and they’re just kind of eyeing what’s going on with the Black Mesa Project.”

Payre, the CEO of Nature and People First, claimed critics of the project are mischaracterizing the scope of the proposal and that he doesn’t understand the opposition to it.

“We’re completely in compliance with their mission statement for which they’re raising money, for which they are even giving IRS benefits to the people who give them this money and in spite of that, they still disagree with us. So frankly we do not understand what else we need to do at this point in time,” said Payre. “I think people are realizing that they’re not reasonable and that they’re essentially opposing a very reasonable clean energy project.”

He said if the Ferc approves the surveying permits, it will take several years and a $60m investment to qualify the project for the next approval process steps and claimed the project will be economically beneficial to the Navajo Nation, producing 1,000 jobs during construction and 100 jobs permanently.

“This water infrastructure will be made available to our nation and to the local chapters to help them with grazing, to help them with agriculture. So that would be very significant positive benefits for local communities, to help them essentially get out of poverty,” added Payre.

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