Navajo and Hopi Nations Remain Locked in an Old Energy Dance with Peabody Energy
In their homes, the Navajo and Hopi often burn coal for heat, which leads to a prevalence of respiratory illness. With coal at an average price of $90/ton, it would take $875 worth of wood to obtain the same amount of heat. With electrical transmission lines absent over much of the reservation, electrical heating is not an option. Even if available, electricity would cost far more than coal, wood or sparsely available propane.
The artist Jetsonorama lives in Inscription House, in northeastern Arizona. There he is the only permanent physician at the Indian Health Service's Inscription House Health Center. Although not a Native American, his wheat-paste photo murals periodically appear on crumbling or abandoned walls throughout the Navajo Reservation. Several years ago, at the ruin of the Cow Springs Trading Post, multiple copies of the artist’s work appeared.
A memorable series of Jetsonorama’s posters featured a beautiful Navajo baby. Shown with a large lump of coal looming over its head, the Navajo baby represents Jetsonorama's message that energy from coal contributes to climate change. At the time, he called it, "a metaphorical black cloud over the head of future generations, if we keep burning fossil fuels."
As part of the agreement between Peabody Energy and the Navajo Nation, the Black Mesa Complex is obligated to provide free coal to any local Native American family. In the fall and winter, when residents seek coal for their stoves, trucks and trailers often clog the road up to Black Mesa. Fully twenty-five percent of residential coal stoves on the Navajo Reservation began life burning something other than coal. Free coal or not, unacceptable levels of smoke and ash often enter the living areas of coal-heated homes.
With its three 775 ft. tall flue gas stacks sending coal smoke into the upper atmosphere, local residents may not notice emissions emanating from Navajo Generating Station (NGS). The heat island effect created by NGS keeps a near-permanent updraft operating in the immediate area. Depending on the prevailing winds, however, NGS coal smoke and its nitrous oxide haze may settle near or far, anywhere in Four Corner country. In summer, coal smoke from NGS and other Arizona coal-fired plants affects cities as far away as Durango, Colorado.
The burning of coal near ground-level is more detrimental to the health of local residents than the NGS stack emissions. Burning slowly, but continuously over the winter months, each residential coal stove is a constant source of air and water pollution. It takes relatively few inefficient coal stoves to affect an entire community. In winter, when the air is often cold and still, residential coal smoke pools near its source. Thus, residents of places like Cow Springs, which sits in a depression midway between Black Mesa and NGS, may experience both residential and NGS coal smoke.
I have a proposal for Peabody Energy and its partners, the Navajo Tribal Energy Authority (NTUA), NGS and the Salt River Project (SRP), which owns the Central Arizona Project (CAP). Instead of removing all outward signs of Peabody Energy’s existence from the Navajo Reservation, the coal mining company and its partners should provide relief to the Navajo who need and deserve it most.
At a minimum, the utility consortium should provide pollution controls for any residential coal-burning stove from Kayenta to LeChee. If no such emission-controlled stoves are available, the consortium should provide propane-heating systems to all current coal-burning families. Although they deny it, Peabody Energy has a record of misuse and abuse of the Navajo Nation and its resources. To make up for their excesses, providing subsidized, clean heat and electricity to several thousand Navajo families is the least that they can do.
When writing about coal, water and the Southwest, it is easy to become morose and believe nothing in our fossil-fueled political environment will ever change. However, there is some good news. According to a recent Los Angeles Times article, college students from all over the U.S. are raising their consciousness regarding the effects of fossil fuels. In one college or university after another, groups and individuals now step forward to assert their power. Students who have never seen a coal plant or choked on coal smoke realize that their actions can make a difference to all who breathe.
Student campaigns such as “Fossil Free UC” have made their mark on policy. Recently, the fundraising foundation for San Francisco State University committed to selling stocks and bonds of companies with significant coal and tar sands holdings. If all three hundred colleges and universities targeted by the “fossil free” advocates join in, the true cost of coal mining and coal burning would become obvious. As our collective investment in Old Energy wanes, that capital can migrate to development and construction of new energy alternatives.
The Navajo and Hopi reservations exist within a desert region. Why not use home-based solar on the reservation to decrease dependency on coal fire? If every Navajo home were to feed power back into the electrical grid, "reverse carbon credits" could allow cleaner propane heating to replace residential coal stoves. The result would be a construction boom unlike any ever seen in the Four Corners country.
No worker ever contracted black lung disease while installing solar panels or a propane heating system. With excess energy flowing back into the grid, NGS could power-down to a lower level. As a result, we could save Navajo and Hopi land, water and air resources for the use of future generations.
This is Chapter 4 of a four-part series regarding coal and water in the Southwest. To return to Chapter 1, please click HERE.