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Updated Apr 17, 2013 - 7:11 pm

Navajo lawmakers put off vote on coal plant lease

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. -- Navajo Nation lawmakers have put off voting on a lease extension for a coal-fired power plant over concerns about water use, pollution, the federal government's role in the power plant and a negotiating team that didn't include any of the lawmakers.

The Tribal Council took the action Wednesday after hours of debate in Window Rock, agreeing to reconvene on April 29 after taking their concerns to owners of the Navajo Generating Station, which powers a series of canals that deliver water to Arizona's most populated areas. The lawmakers had been considering legislation that would extend the lease that expires in 2019 to 2044 and boost payments to the tribe from $3 million to $43 million a year.

A handful of amendments to the legislation to control fly ash, ensure that tribal laws are followed and to address water use at the power plant were approved, but the lawmakers weren't satisfied overall. While they acknowledged the benefit of the power plant to the Navajo economy, they said they couldn't ignore the pleas of environmental groups to seek a better deal.

``I really believe that by allowing this to go forward, we will shortchange the Navajo Nation and the Navajo people,'' Delegate Leonard Tsosie said. ``We have many questions.''

Navajo President Ben Shelly and Tribal Council Speaker Johnny Naize, who sponsored the agreement, urged the lawmakers to approve the lease extension Wednesday. Shelly said that the Salt River Project, which operates the power plant, has told the tribe that there is little, if any, room for further negotiations.

``They consider the major points of the agreement to be exhausted, such as jurisdiction and money,'' Shelly wrote in a letter to the Tribal Council. ``Because of mitigating circumstances, the water concerns are unlikely to be resolved before the timeframe needed to finalize the lease extension.''

SRP spokesman Scott Harelson said the utility was disappointed that the Navajo Nation Council tabled the legislation. Any changes to the agreement would have to be approved by the owners of the power plant and the tribe.

``The proposed lease extension was the result of more than 2 1/2 years of negotiation between the plant's owners and a Navajo nation team comprised of representatives of the nation's government from different areas, including environmental, finance and natural resources,'' he said. ``Those negotiations addressed the issues raised today at council that were fairly agreed to.''

The Tribal Council saw no need to rush Wednesday. It was the second time the lawmakers had taken up the agreement, after ruling it out of order earlier this year because the negotiating team didn't include any tribal lawmakers as required by a section of Navajo law. The tribe's attorney general said in recent memo that Shelly had the authority under a different section of tribal law to assemble the team.

Delegate Alton Joe Shepherd said the Tribal Council needs to do its best to come up with an agreement that is comprehensive and in the best interest of the Navajo people.

``Now the ball is in our court, so to speak,'' he said.

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