My involvement with combating the coal mining and power plants in the Four Corners region began with a backpacking trip to Navajo Mountain and Rainbow Bridge in the summer of 1970. It was just me and my dog Jemima and my black and white ’57 Ford Wagon which I'd christened the Skunk.
I wanted to see the largest natural bridge in the Southwest before the water from Lake Foul rose and inundated the area. (You may know it as Lake Powell, created when Glen Canyon was sacrificed to a dam to provide electricity Los Angeles and environs.)
The night I spent camping at the base of Navajo Mountain was absolute magic. This was the most amazing sky and clouds I have ever seen—the Angels had spoken to me! In the morning, we hiked out to Rainbow Bridge feeling totally consumed by the wilderness experience and the natural beauty of the area. At least I was; I can't speak for Jemima. I was stoked and really high on the life that I had moved from California to the Southwest to experience, and to photograph. In more than one sense, I had arrived. This was to be my life's work.
The region was a comparatively remote and quiet place then. You felt Anasazi ghosts moving in the wind.
Heading back to Santa Fe on Highway 160, I hadn't reached the town of Shiprock yet when I saw a monster on the horizon spewing poisonous gas into the crystal clear sky. I was speechless.
I drove to the edge of the artificial lake, which served as a holding pond, near the Four Corners Power Plant and took photos. I wanted to show people the stagnant water, the gigantic plant and its plumes of smoke. Shiprock, the volcanic plug, was barely visible through the pollution. I was not only appalled; I was inspired to do something.
I got back to Santa Fe and went to see Bertha Dutton, an anthropologist and ethnologist. After I told her what I had experienced, she immediately said “You have to meet Jack Loeffler." Loeffler, now best known as a longtime friend of the writer Edward Abbey, was forming a group to stop any additional construction of coal mines and power plants.
Eventually, a lot of New Mexico environmentalists joined the Black Mesa Defense Fund. Western historian and American Heritage editor-in-chief Alvin Josephy joined us, along with Ed Abbey, artist John DePuy, actor Dennis Hopper, Magnum photographer Dan Budnik, photographer Marc Gaede, ethnohistorian Diana Hadley, and countless other White Eyes across the West who gave their souls to promote the cause.
We worked closely with the Hopi, mainly Elders, and with many Navajos. I think of Robert Salabye, Thomas Banyacya, Navajo tribal chairmen Raymond Nakai and Peter McDonald, and Kee Shelton, but there were so many others: Leroy Keams, the Navajo artist who posed for the iconic poster that Gaede produced, and David Monyogye, a Hopi traditionalist leader, who pledged: "We on Black Mesa never surrendered to Kit Carson, and we will not surrender to you." When I think back about it, I could easily name a hundred people who pulled together to tell the world about the devastation.
We failed to cut the heart out of the monster. But in 2022, with two of the four plants closed and more to follow, a new generation of activists are succeeding where we failed. I guess it took half a century and global climate catastrophe, but at least it's happening. The sons and daughters (and granddaughters!) of the Navajo and Hopi people we knew are getting the job done. I salute you!
One special moment for me was when the photo I took in the summer of 1970 ran with others in an issue of Life magazine along with an article written by John Neary entitled "Hello Energy - Goodbye Big Sky." That was my first publication in a big magazine. But I would have traded it in a heartbeat for a story with a different ending.
Sept. 30, 2022
"We on Black Mesa never surrendered to Kit Carson, and we will not surrender to you."
This Navajo man and his family were displaced by the Black Mesa mine. I wish I had his name, but in a way, it's appropriate that it's been lost in my archives, several boxes of which were flooded a few years ago. He stands in for so many whose homes were lost when more than 10,000 people were forcibly relocated to make room for the mine.
Hopi elder John Lansa, a resident of Oraibi, the oldest continually inhabited village in the U.S. Records show the Hopi living on Black Mesa as far back as 1350. The Navajo encroached on Hopi land, eventually taking over almost 2 million acres.
I shot this photograph of Lansa at the Black Mesa mine. All the Hopi vlllage leaders opposed the mining, but the "official" tribal council rubber stamped the deal. Aristocratic east coast-bred anthropologist and writer Oliver LaFarge helped establish the council in the 1930s; it was disbanded, and later reactivated by the corrupt attorney John Boyden, who hid his ties to Peabody Coal Company while ostensibly representing the Hopi.
Hopi elders Jack Pongyesva, a snake priest, and David Monongie at Hotevilla, the most conservative village. They still don’t have electricity in the old village. At the time, people told me they didn't want it. They had been self-sufficient since time immemorial.
Coal slurry spilling down the hill from the coal processing plant. I took many photos like this in the years I spent in the Four Corners, mostly from 1970 to 1974. I kept going regularly through the 1990s.
The 1540-gigawatt Four Corners Power Plant belching away. This was in 1970 when the plume from this power plant was the only sign of humans that could be seen from space. This plant was operated primarily by Arizona Public Service in Phoenix. They said in 1970 that it had a "35-year life span” and here we are in 2022, some 52 years later. While three of the plant's oldest units are closed, plans to close the plant entirely were scuttled until 2031, a political compromise that was part of the Obama administration's 2015 Clean Power Plan. Even that moderate plan was too much for the coal industry. In 2019, the Trump-appointed head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency gutted the plan; in 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court dealt another blow by limiting the EPA's ability to set climate standards for power plants.
This is the Four Corners plant from another angle, showing the the 1200-acre artificial lake that cools the plant's discharge. The water comes from the San Juan River: 14.3 million gallons a day! From the lake, the water is slurried down to a holding pond, and from there, it goes into the No Name Wash, and eventually back into the San Juan River.
The Four Corners Power Plant has 26 groundwater monitoring wells, 26 of which have been polluted above federal advisory levels based on samples collected between November 04, 2015 and November 30, 2017.
Groundwater at this site contains unsafe levels of sulfate, lithium, boron, fluoride, cobalt, selenium, molybdenum, radium, arsenic, lead, thallium, beryllium, cadmium, and chromium. Source: The Environmental Integrity Project.
The honkies are gone but their legacy continues.
Painting: Cloud World, Maynard Dixon.
Terrence Moore's photographs have appeared in The New York Times, Smithsonian, Audubon and many others. His books include Under the Sun: Desert Architecture and Style, Baja! with Doug Peacock,and most recently, 66 on 66, a chronicle of America's most iconic highway.