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Tr-Ash Talk: From Dirty Past To Sunny Future

In his address at the Tribal Nations Conference, President Obama spoke with his usual eloquence about invigorating growth on tribal lands, and the perfect example of this new growth is the Moapa solar project on the Moapa River Indian Reservation. Situated just 30 miles north of Las Vegas, the site will generate up to 350 megawatts of clean, renewable energy. It highlights in many ways the future of the nation’s energy supply, and unfortunately the Paiute Indians themselves know the industry’s cloudy past.

Just next to the reservation is the Reid Gardner Power Station. This coal-fired power plant generates more than just electricity; it produces more than 4,000 tons of toxic, arsenic-laden coal ash every year. This waste is stored in landfills near the power station, but often it does not stay there. On bad days, the wind sends the ash sweeping into the reservation, a condition some tribal members compare to a sandstorm. Locking the doors and staying inside is the only recourse on these bad days, and even that has not protected the Moapa Band of Paiutes. The locals have plenty to say about their health, ranging from headaches and dizziness to asthma and even serious heart conditions. The almost-50-year-old belching coal plant has plenty to answer for.

Still, the Moapa Paiutes are determined to show the world that there is a better way forward.

The new solar installation is of an unprecedented scale for a reservation and offers not only clean energy but new jobs and growth for the tribe. For people like the Moapa Paiutes’ Chairman William Anderson this is a way to remain positive and a chance to connect with something that has been a part of the tribe’s traditions for generations. It is also a unique opportunity for Chairman Anderson to lead his tribe, and the nation, to a brighter future.

The two-part project is grand in scale, featuring more than 1 million photovoltaic panels on 1,000 acres of tribal land. Once finished, the entire system will run comfortably for about 25–30 years and will never produce toxic ash. The deal has already excited many across the country, with Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa signing an agreement with the Moapa Paiutes to power more than 105,000 homes. Sen. Reid also enthusiastically applauds the project.

But while this is a positive step forward for the Moapa, we cannot ignore the continuing destruction caused by Reid Gardner and the nearly 600 toxic-belching coal plants located throughout the U.S., as well as the thousands of coal ash ponds, landfills and minefills in almost every state of the nation. And if certain senators have their way, the EPA will be prevented from controlling the arsenic-laden ash and toxic leachate that plagues the Moapa Paiutes. Coal ash legislation passed by the House (H.R. 3409) and pending in the Senate (S. 3512), threatens to leave communities like the Moapa unprotected from the threats posed by toxic ash from coal-burning power plants.

It is time the nation followed the visionary Moapa Paiutes in moving away from a fuel that pollutes the air and water and damages the health of everyone near it and transitioned to use of clean renewable energy.

The Moapa Paiutes and their fight against the devastating effects of coal ash pollution were profiled in the Earthjustice video documentary series, An Ill Wind.

Part 3 of An Ill Wind, "A Brighter Path", discusses the solar electricity-generating station:

Watch the entire documentary, An Ill Wind.