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Displaced coal miners, power plant workers ask for help with health insurance

Unions representing San Juan Generating Station and San Juan Mine employees have asked the state for about $6 million in energy transition funds to compensate displaced workers for the out-of-pocket health insurance costs they’ve faced since being laid off. The funds would come from the New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions.

This is especially important for the miners who lost health insurance at the end of the month they were laid off. Power plant workers, on the other hand, have six months of health insurance after layoffs.

Layoffs at the mine began last year as the facilities prepared to close.

Stephen Curtis, a lawyer representing the unions, said that work at both the mine and the power plant was dangerous and hard on the body. He said the loss of health insurance is one of the factors driving laid-off workers to either leave the community in search of work or accept “dead-end” jobs.

The energy transition funds come from securitized bonds that the Public Service Company of New Mexico plans to issue to essentially refinance the previous investments in the power plant. While PNM has not yet issued the bonds, it provided the $20 million to the state this summer.

The Energy Transition Act of 2019 created the mechanism for PNM to access securitized bonds and required a portion of those funds to go to three government departments — Economic Development, Workforce Solutions and Indian Affairs — to support the communities and workers directly affected by to benefit the power plant. closure.

Of that funding, $12 million is available through the Department of Workforce Solutions to assist displaced workers.

In 2020, the Energy Transition Act Committee asked for information on possible projects that could benefit from energy transition funding.

The committee plans to submit recommendations to the three government departments. Those recommendations may include specific projects to support or areas such as sustainable agriculture.

State law requires a formal request for proposals process that the state departments will go through, but projects that receive support from the Energy Transition Act Committee will have an advantage going into that process. However, if the committee recommends that insurance costs be reimbursed, funds can be distributed to qualified workers without going through the request for proposals process.

By the time the committee discussed the proposals they heard on Tuesday, the meeting was already an hour over schedule and many members had left.

Many of those who remained supported reimbursing the miners for the insurance costs for up to 12 months.

This will allow the workers to have continued coverage for themselves and their families as they transition into new careers or into retirement. Some of those who have chosen to retire are not yet eligible for Medicare but will be soon. For those who have decided to pursue training that will help them enter new careers, the direct payments to offset insurance costs will help them maintain health coverage while they pursue a degree or certificate.

Tom Taylor, who serves as convener for the Department of Economic Development, did not support the request, saying the money should instead be used to support projects that will create jobs for those displaced workers.

Taylor, who previously served in the state House of Representatives, suggested the committee instead ask the legislature for an emergency appropriation of funds to help the workers who now either pay out of pocket for insurance or chose to remain uninsured .

Rather than make a decision Tuesday, the committee chose to reconvene when more committee members can be present and have an in-depth discussion about the proposed projects, including direct funds for insurance costs.

Jason Sandel, the convener for the Department of Workforce Solutions, said the future meeting would likely take place during the first week of December.

Other projects

Throughout the meeting, Sandel emphasized the need for projects that can quickly provide assistance and work. This could harm projects such as a proposed pumped hydro storage project.

While the pumped hydro project would create two reservoirs on Navajo Nation—one in Arizona and one in New Mexico—that could become tourism destinations and while the project would create thousands of construction jobs and more than 100 full-time jobs, the funding requested would be used for studies necessary to get the project licensed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Job creation is likely still years away and the company proposing the project will need to provide more evidence that Navajo Nation not only supports the project, but is willing to provide both the land and the water to make it possible.

And, while the Energy Transition Act does not allow economic development funding to be used on projects involving hydrocarbons, at least two of the proposals involve natural gas.

This includes San Juan College’s proposal requesting $1.4 million to train 55 workers in producing natural gas in a more environmentally friendly way.

There were also two proposals for hydrogen projects, but one of them – the Libertad proposal – switched from methane-based hydrogen to electrolysis, or using water to create hydrogen. When asked about water rights, Joe Merlino, a managing partner of Libertad Power, did not directly identify a water source. Like the pumped hydro project, the Libertad project is still undergoing studies. Merlino said Libertad had not ruled out using methane, but he said the energy transition funds would not be used to pursue methane-based hydrogen.

Merlino said Libertad thinks methane-based hydrogen could play a role in the energy transition, but isn’t sure right now what that role will be.

He said the company’s switch to focus on electrolysis is based on where the market appears to be headed.

Members of the public who commented urged the committee to support what they described as the community proposals. These include four proposals to support traditional Navajo agriculture, a proposal for sustainable housing on Navajo Nation, a proposal to provide off-grid solar power to Navajo Nation residents who do not have electricity and a proposal to create a to create a tourism center that showcases the region’s unique nature. mustangs and training contractors to spay mustang mares with birth control to bring the population to a sustainable level.

Committee member Joseph Hernandez commented on the proposals for agriculture, housing and off-grid power.

“We’re hitting everything that’s needed within 100 miles,” he said, referring to the Energy Transition Act’s definition of affected communities as being within 100 miles of the power plant.

Taylor said the funding is coming too late for the community to avoid some of the effects of the power plant closing.

“A problem has already happened that we were supposed to be ready to kill,” he said.

Initially, the committee hoped to have projects in place when the mine and power plant closed. This would have helped the displaced workers transition to new careers immediately.

Some of the delays have come from legal challenges to the Energy Transition Act, while others are related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

A full list of project proposals can be found here.

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