A COUPLE OF MILES outside the town of Page, three 775-foot-tall caramel-colored smokestacks tower like sentries on the edge of northern Arizona’s sprawling red sandstone wilderness. At their base, the Navajo Generating Station, the West’s largest power-generating facility, thrums ceaselessly, like a beating heart.
Football-field-length conveyors constantly feed it piles of coal, hauled 78 miles by train from where huge shovels and mining equipment scraped it out of the ground shortly before. Then, like a medieval mortar and pestle machine, wheels crush the stone against a large bowl into a smooth powder that is sprayed into tremendous furnaces — some of the largest ever built. Those furnaces are stoked to 2,000 degrees, heating tubes of steam to produce enough pressure to drive an 80-ton rod of steel to spin faster than the speed of sound, converting the heat of the fires into electricity.
The power generated enables a modern wonder. It drives a set of pumps 325 miles down the Colorado River that heave trillions of gallons of water out of the river and send it shooting over mountains and through canals. That water — lifted 3,000 vertical feet and carried 336 miles — has enabled the cities of Phoenix and Tucson to rapidly expand.
This achievement in moving water, however, is gained at an enormous cost. Every hour the Navajo’s generators spin, the plant spews more climate-warming gases into the atmosphere than almost any other facility in the United States. Alone, it accounts for 29 percent of Arizona’s emissions from energy generation. The Navajo station’s infernos gobble 15 tons of coal each minute, 24 hours each day, every day.
At sunrise, a reddish-brown snake slithers across the sky as the burned coal sends out plumes of carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide, mercury, lead and other metals. That malignant plume — containing 16 million tons of carbon dioxide every year — contributes to causing the very overheated weather, drought and dwindling flows of water the plant’s power is intended to relieve.
Its builders knew that the Navajo Generating Station, which began being constructed in 1969, would cause enormous pollution. An early government analysis warned that burning so much coal would degrade the region’s air by “orders of magnitude,” and federal scientists suggested Navajo and other coal plants in the region could turn the local terrain into a “national sacrifice area.” But for more than a decade, the pollution went largely unchecked. Climate change wasn’t yet a threat, and the other option for getting water into central Arizona — damming the Grand Canyon — seemed worse.
At times, officials have tried to mitigate the plant’s problems, pouring $420 million into improvements to limit sulfur dioxide emissions as acid rain blanketed parts of the country, for example.
But again and again, the federal government and the other agencies responsible for the plant have dodged calls to clean up the facility and have pushed some of the most stringent environmental requirements far into the future.
In a series of reports, ProPublica has examined how the West’s water crisis is as much a product of human error and hubris as it is of nature. The Navajo Generating Station is a monument to man’s outsized confidence that it would always be possible to engineer new solutions to an arid region’s environmental limits.
Now, 15 years into a historic drought, it is becoming increasingly clear that the era of engineering more and more water out of the Colorado River is coming to a close. The Navajo Generating Station is more a caution than a marvel, showing how much energy it takes to move water through an artificial river system, and the unforeseen damage produced by doing so.
The plant’s environmental toll is sure to fuel arguments for its eventual closing. For now, it has been granted a reprieve from complying with the Obama administration’s new Clean Power initiative, which requires Arizona to reduce its carbon output by 52 percent. But the Environmental Protection Agency has said that it expects to work with the Navajo tribe to reduce emissions separately from Arizona’s mandate, and will likely revisit that issue in the future. The plant will also soon be subject to a new federal environmental review process triggered by its renewed lease on Navajo lands.