Navajo, Hopi tribes turn to other heat sources after coal mine closure

Polacca, Ariz. • Navajo and Hopi families in northeastern Arizona that have long relied on coal to heat their homes are looking to other sources after last year’s closure of a coal mine.

The Kayenta Mine shut down after decades of supplying the Navajo Generating Station near Page along the Arizona-Utah border. The Navajo and Hopi tribes shared in the coal royalties.

Tribal members also had access to the coal, regularly loading the long-burning fossil fuel into pickup trucks or buying it from roadside vendors. In the first winter without it, they're having to travel farther for coal, switching to firewood or even burning household items to stay warm.

“Coal economically works better because it burns longer, you don’t need as much in order to heat your home,” said Monica Nuvamsa, who would drive two hours from her home in Shungopavi on the Hopi reservation to collect coal for her grandmother from the Kayenta Mine.

[Read more: Westwater, a Navajo community in rural Utah, might finally get running water and electricity]

Peabody Energy, which owned the Kayenta Mine, had provided cards for free coal to Navajo and Hopi government centers to distribute to tribal members. Others could buy it. The loading facility was open three days a week, from late October to mid-March, serving thousands of visitors a year.

Many homes on both the Navajo and Hopi reservations lack electricity, and propane and space heaters are expensive. Cutting firewood is an option, but the nearest forests are hours away and not everyone has woodcutting equipment, their own transportation or money for the trip.

Wallace Nez has been selling wood for years, either by the truckload or in smaller bundles. Several people drove up to his truck recently to ask about the last row of wood that he was selling for $40 only to nod and drive away.

"For some people, it's too much," he said.

Others are helping to fill the need by bringing in truckloads of wood or coal from another mine on the New Mexico portion of the Navajo reservation.

Melissa Alcala recently started a firewood delivery program in the Hopi village of Tewa. The village sells the wood harvested by a lumber company and offers one free cord to elders, who Alcala said have been burning things around the house, like clothes, for heat. Discounts are available for subsequent deliveries.

"We're not here to give our project away, we're here to empower people, to educate them that this (is) where we're at," Alcala said.

Chelsea Sekakuku lives in an 80-year-old stone house in the Hopi village of Kykotsmovi and chops wood multiple times a day. She and her children spend a full day gathering a truckload of wood that lasts a week. At home, she said she has to get up during the night to keep the fire burning.

"It's just a lot of physical work," she said. "And not everyone is able to afford wood, but it's a necessity now."

The nonprofit organization, Red Feather, said the switch to wood in stoves comes with increased risks of chimney fires. The group's executive director, Joe Seidenberg, said burning wood leads to a build-up of creosote, a flammable residue.

The group has been offering classes on how to properly maintain and use wood in stoves in tribal communities, and doing chimney cleanings and inspections.

"There are some instances where we'll help tribal elders or people that are just simply unable to help themselves and we'll step in and take care of their needs," Seidenberg said.

The only coal mine on the Navajo Nation now is near Farmington, New Mexico. The company that runs it, Bisti Fuels, typically has around 2,230 visits from people wanting coal to heat their homes. That number has increased to nearly 6,000 after the closure of the Kayenta Mine, said Andy Hawkins, the company's community engagement manager.

Navajo government officials are working with the mine to deliver coal to dozens of Navajo communities and to expand the program to the Hopi reservation.