(AP) — Ron Little nestles into a familiar seat aboard a train locomotive and slides the window open, leaning out to get a better view of dozens of rail cars that stretch for a mile behind and the landscape he knows so well.The heavy steel wheels roll along a dizzying pattern of concrete railroad ties that snake through sandstone formations, boulder-laden arroyos and grasslands.
Little points to a rock formation named for the reddish dirt that Navajos use to dye wool for rugs and another with a cutout like the handle of a milk jug.
“It’s beautiful scenery you just go live with every day,” he said.
Every day until recently, when the last of the trains he’s operated for more than half his life pulled up to a power plant with thousands of tons of coal.
Before the year ends, the Navajo Generating Station near the Arizona-Utah border will close and others in the region are on track to shut down or reduce their output in the next few years. Its owners are turning to cheaper power produced by natural gas as they and other coal-fired plants in the U.S. face growing pressure over contributing to climate change.
Those shifts are upending people’s livelihoods, including hundreds of mostly Native American workers who mined the coal on tribal land, loaded it from a roadside silo and helped produce the electricity that has powered the American Southwest since the 1970s.
Two tribes each will lose millions of dollars in income, while workers like Little are forced into early retirement. Some employees will stay on to restore the land, while others aren’t sure what’s next.Ted Candelaria, a fourth-generation railroader who voted for President Donald Trump in hopes he would be coal’s saving grace, said the change is bittersweet.
“I got all emotional, started tearing up. It’s kind of sad because I love what I do,” Candelaria said from the driver’s seat of his pickup truck, looking toward a line of locomotives. “Where else does a guy get to come to work and ride on an electric train?”
The Black Mesa and Lake Powell Railroad was one of only three 50-kilovolt electric lines in the world. The rail yard boasted some rarities, including a 1976 locomotive with a faded blue body and a rusty red front end that led the final journey from the coal silos to the power plant in late August, effectively shutting down the mine that fed it.
The power plant was built in the late 1960s on land leased from the Navajo Nation, one of two coal-mining Native American tribes that has the largest land base, spanning parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.
The plant was a compromise to keep more hydroelectric dams from being built through the Grand Canyon and to power a series of canals that deliver water to Arizona’s major cities, allowing them to grow. At the time, the U.S. was facing a natural gas shortage and utilities turned to coal to feed the electric grid.
Now, utilities increasingly are shifting to renewable energy, setting standards to wean themselves off coal, an industry Trump has tried to prop up.
The country gets about 25% of its electricity from coal-fired plants, down from 40% five years ago, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.U.S. utilities announced the retirement of nearly 550 coal-fired power generators since 2010, the agency said. More are planned.Two other coal-fired plants operate on or near the Navajo Nation in northwestern New Mexico and have a majority Navajo workforce. The San Juan Generating Station is slated to close in 2022, and the nearby Four Corners Power Plant by 2038.One unit at the Navajo Generating Station in Arizona shut down in September. Decommissioning the other two is expected to take two years, with the smokestacks coming down in 2020.