In the 1974 classic Roman Polanski neo-noir film Chinatown, private detective Jake Gittes (played by Jack Nicholson) discovers one of LA’s dirty secrets: Wealthy developers are legally stealing precious water from poor struggling farmers in California’s central valley to hydrate the posh homes of Beverly Hills and a rapidly growing Los Angeles. It’s a sordid tale of corrupt local politics, exploited natural resources, an earlier version of the 1% vs. the 99%, and seemingly the “future” of the city.
In a similar vein, despite growing green consciousness in southern California, the city of Los Angeles has another dirty secret, and it is called coal. Furthermore, the electricity that the residents of L.A. are using everyday from coal is being burned at the expense of struggling Native communities in the American Southwest.
Despite a resolution passed by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the L.A. City Council to get L.A. off of coal, the Los Angeles Water and Power Department (LAWPD) still purchases almost half of its power from coal plants in Arizona and Utah. The resolution has led to two coal plants being shut down, but the LAPWD is still heavily invested in utility companies like Southern California Edison.
And while California itself has very few coal plants and no coal mines, it keeps its homes air conditioned and lights on through plants hundreds of miles away spewing pollution into the airways and waterways of the Southwest. This addiction has a particularly harsh impact on communities in the Four Corners area of New Mexico and Arizona as the Navajo Generating Station is located on Navajo land. Furthermore, companies like St. Louis-based Peabody continue to mine coal reserves on the same land.
Stellar reporting by Altnet’s Josh Frank has highlighted this story and the struggle of Indigenous groups fighting to be heard on the impact of coal plants and mining on native land.
My community is heavily impacted by Salt River Project’s coal and water extraction activities. SRP has extensive ties to Peabody Energy’s massive mining operations and the Navajo Generating Station,” says Louise Benally of nearby Black Mesa. “Coal mining has destroyed thousands of archeological sites and our only water source has been seriously compromised. Their operations are causing widespread respiratory problems, lung diseases, and other health impacts on humans, the environment, and all living things.
Last month, protests erupted in Arizona around the Navajo Generating Station. 16 activists were arrested at the offices of corporate climate marauder and managing partner of the Navajo plant, the Salt River Project (SRP). SRP is also a member of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and sits on its board. ALEC is most known for aggressive legislative campaigns to undermine labor standards, climate science and civil liberties, as well as a driving force behind the racist Arizona law SB1070.
At the end of Chinatown, the wealthy developers won, covered up scandals both political and personal, and Gittes was told “forget about it Jake. It’s Chinatown.”
But the fight over LA’s future with dirty coal is far from over, and we won’t be forgetting about the struggles of people most impacted by it for quite some time.