The Kayenta coal mine in northeastern Arizona shut down last year, along with the power plant it supplied. Coal from that mine used to light up Las Vegas and Los Angeles and supply the electricity to pump water to Phoenix and Tucson. Those cities have been able to turn to other sources of energy. Not so on the Hopi and Navajo Nations. For decades tribal members relied on Kayenta coal to heat their homes, and now it’s their first winter without reliable or affordable fuel. Hopi community leaders call a “devastating crisis”.
Losing coal has led to a public health crisis on the Hopi Nation. There are few other options for heating homes. Propane and space heaters are expensive, and many houses don’t have electricity. Trees are scarce; the nearest places to buy or cut wood are hours away by car.
Monica Nuvasma, a homeowner affected by the closure, says coal economically works better because it burns longer, you don’t need as much in order to heat your home.”
“I think that that’s a really difficult thing for most people to grasp, when they just turn their thermostat or push a button, and they get the heating,” she added
One nonprofit, Red Feather Development Group, is trying to ease the hardship created by Kayenta’s closure. The group runs workshops on alternative heating options, and hires contractors to weatherize houses so they hold the heat better. Joe Seidenberg, the executive director, says, “There are people that are living with extreme housing disparities, with major holes in their roofs, with cardboard windows, that… are at a real risk for freezing to death.”
Seidenberg says Red Feather installed 5 solar powered furnaces and weatherized or made repairs on 91 homes last year on Hopi and Navajo. But the group is limited by funding and has a long waitlist. Kayenta’s closure affects 9,000 people on Hopi and 170,000 on Navajo.
“It is truly an injustice that this is happening in the United States of America,” Seidenberg says.
One of Red Feather’s customers is Chelsea Sekakuku. Contractors add insulation and fix broken windows in her 80-year-old stone house in Kykotsmovi Village on Third Mesa. Sekakuku burns wood in her coal stove now. “I’m having to get up twice a night to check the fire, make sure it’s still going. I’m having to chop wood beforehand, in the morning, in the evening.”
Some Hopi blame the tribal government for not preparing better for Kayenta’s closure. But Vice Chairman Clark Tenakhongva says the U.S. government bears responsibility for forcing Hopi to mine coal that made the Southwest’s cities flourish, while the reservation remains in poverty. The Hopi Nation lost 80 percent of its tribal budget when coal royalties ceased.
Tenakhongva says, “I’m just hoping, just hoping, that we do not lose anybody throughout this season to any kind of exposure.” He says this winter many must choose between eating and keeping warm.
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Contributed by Sean Walton of The Daily Sheeple.