The coal plants

Harry Reid’s spending some political capital trying to stop greenhouse gases from rising out of eastern Nevada

U.S. Sen. Harry Reid is often asked for autographs on his home state visits. But his popularity rises and falls.

U.S. Sen. Harry Reid is often asked for autographs on his home state visits. But his popularity rises and falls.

Photo By Dennis Myers

It was a hot day under the huge tent at Baker, whose population had grown by about 30 times for the ceremony on Aug. 15, 1987. A couple of thousand people were on hand to see Great Basin National Park dedicated.

The Reagan administration had done everything possible to diminish U.S. Sen. Harry Reid’s part in the ceremony. He was buried deep in the program. But the locals under the tent knew that Reid, as a member of the House, was the one who had finally pushed creation of the park through Congress, past his grudging Republican colleagues from Nevada and after 60 years of frustrated attempts.

The park’s launch got some terrific publicity—Newsweek headlined it as “The last great park” in an article with gorgeous photos. Time went with “Stalagmites and stunning vistas.” Soon, across the nation, many people with family cars and Winnebagos knew there was a new destination to try.

For White Pine County residents, it could not have come at a better time. The open pit copper mine that had been the mainstay of the local economy for many years was shut down, torpedoed by cheap foreign copper (Kennecott blamed it on environmental regulation). Reid in Congress and the members of the Nevada Legislature were doing all they could to bring new economic activity to the area. Besides the park’s creation, the legislature had slated a state prison for Ely—it was dedicated on Aug. 28 that year—and money was coming to revive a mining railroad into a tourist line. At the park dedication, county residents kept coming up to shake Reid’s hand and thank him.

In the previous year’s election when Reid won his first term in the Senate, he had lost White Pine County by 675 votes. When he came up for reelection in 1992, he won it by 58.

That was then. This is now:

“Harry Reid is an idiot.”

The tide turns?
That was a White Pine County man, speaking to Gov. Jim Gibbons, who uneasily tried to let the man know that Ely Times reporter Rudy Herndon was nearby taking notes.

This is Ely City Councilmember Jim Northness talking about Reid: “He has never cared about White Pine County.”

The bloom is off the rose for Harry Reid in White Pine. Or is it? Officials in Ely say so. But others in town say those officials don’t speak for the whole community. Oskar Atkinson of the Bristlecone Alliance said locals think businesspeople are ramming a project past residents: “They think it’s a bad deal—and it can’t be prevented.”

Reid is engaged in a battle with White Pine County leaders over his effort to stop construction of three coal-fired power plants in that county and northern Clark County at Mesquite. Mesquite’s City Council backs Reid. Ely’s does not.

Reid says his critics in the small counties don’t always know their own best interests, and that his previous rural initiatives were initially criticized and later vindicated.

“I went from being the most popular person in rural Nevada to the most unpopular because of my [1980s] wilderness legislation,” he said. “As the years have gone by, more than 20 years now, I don’t go anyplace that anyone ever brings up, in a negative sense, wilderness. ‘It was the best thing for the state of Nevada, the best thing for those rural communities. I’m glad he did it.’ And in the years to come, people will look back at this [power plant] fight—and I’ll win this fight—and say, ‘He did the right thing. We still have clean air in Ely.’ “

Reid and his critics both engage in overstatement to make their points. When Councilmember Northness said Reid has “never cared about White Pine County,” Reid aide Jon Summers responded, “[Reid] secured money for a new heating system (biomass) at an elementary school. He also recently got money for new sports fields, which are being built now.”

On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine when Reid ever fit his self-description as “the most popular person in rural Nevada.” That description makes any political decline he suffers in White Pine seem more heroic.

Ely Times editor Kent Harper has argued that Reid, as a federal official, should be concentrating on federal policies by trying to stop all coal plants, not interfering in local disputes by trying to stop a few plants in Nevada.

“I don’t have the time or space to teach the full, fifth-grade lesson about the U.S. Constitution, but here’s some stuff they may have taught on a day you missed school,” Harper wrote. “Harry Reid is indeed Nevada’s senior senator. But he represents us only in national and international matters, not in matters reserved to the authority of the state. It’s called federalism and is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution … [Reid] says his concern is ‘global’ warming. Then as Senate majority leader, he should do something about the problem nationally. Sure, he can throw his weight around, make life miserable for the BLM or EPA if they don’t single out eastern Nevada for his prohibition. But what’s the point, if dozens of plants are allowed to be built elsewhere in the country?”

Atkinson retorts, “No community all over the U.S. is seeking to get a power plant in their area … only White Pine County.”

The park’s fate
The senator is feeling protective of the national park, which according to Superintendent Cynthia Nielsen has “the darkest, clearest night skies of any national park except for Denali.” The park’s former superintendent, Becky Mills, approached Reid at an Ely meeting and told him, “We are very grateful for the position you have taken.”

Reid has described his drive to stop the power plants in striking terms—"I avoided it for a while, then I called my staff in one day and said … my conscience won’t allow me to ignore it anymore. I think it’s awful that we would allow the placing of an unnecessary facility in one of the areas where we have pure, pristine air and start burning 7 million tons of coal every year. Couldn’t do it.”

That prompted Las Vegas CityLife to ask why Reid’s conscience falls silent when it comes to the mining industry, with which the senator has a cozy relationship. The newspaper said, “There, Reid speaks up not for the environment, but for the people polluting it. ‘It can’t be their way or no way,’ Reid says of environmentalists. ‘We have to reach a compromise.’ That’s funny: It seems a modest 8 percent royalty—and the first update of the General Mining Law of 1872—is a fairly good compromise as it stands. After all, mines are known to release cyanide and mercury into the wild.”

Reid responds, “I’ve always been a supporter of mining because I believe you can be an environmentalist and still protect mining, and I’ve done that. I have advocated for changing the 1872 law for 25 years.”

Will he be able to make up the economic development White Pine and Mesquite will lose?

“Well, I’m going to try. That’s up to the power companies. They have at their grasp the ability to start building right now solar, geothermal and wind. They can do it. But they’re too interested in what their stock prices are going to be rather than what’s going to be good for the people of the state of Nevada.”

However, Reid’s Republican colleague in the Senate, John Ensign, argues that no power company will want to make the capital investment needed to build transmission lines if the only power servicing those lines is from alternative sources.

Reid is also opposed on the coal plant issue by Gov. Jim Gibbons.