SHIPROCK — Rowena Sells had a choice.
Sells, of Shiprock, had to choose between propane and coal to heat her home, a decision encountered by many residents of the 27,000-square-mile reservation and surrounding areas.
It's not an easy choice, Sells said.
Propane costs about $3,000 to keep the home she shares with her husband, Carson, warm through the winter. Coal, though cheaper, comes with crushing risks.
Economy of risk
Roof-top shingles blister in the sun, curling at the edges like so many leaves above Sells' home off Mesa Farm Road. Smoke exhales from rusting chimneys perched atop nearly every roof and the smell of smoldering wood and coal punctuates the air.
Power lines crisscross the sky, delivering electricity and phone services to most residents. Sells, who operates Noah's Ark Ministry next to her home, has running water and many other modern amenities. One thing she lacks, however, is a safe and affordable way to heat her home.
"Propane doesn't warm the whole trailer," she said. "It's too expense. It takes a lot of money. Having a stove is much better, but I'm not supposed to have a stove in a trailer."
Despite the very real risk of a structure fire, Sells chose a stove and installed one last year.
A 250-pound tank of propane costs about $500, she said. A tank lasts two or three weeks.
By contrast, coal can be purchased for $10 per bag or $250 for a truckload, she said. A bag lasts two or three days.
Wood is even cheaper at $10 for a truckload from southern Colorado, Sells said.
But a hot stove must be tended all the time.
"We have to be around home to keep feeding the fire," Carson Sells said. Otherwise, they might see their breath inside their own home. An icy home also can lead to additional problems such as broken pipes or other damage.
The couple took precautions when installing the stove by putting ceramic tiles on the walls surrounding the stove to insulate them from the heat. They also hired a professional to position the pipe through the roof.
Yet months of burning wood during the day and stoking coals at night in this brittle winter environment is a disaster waiting to happen, Sells said. Couple that with the fact that many owners of wood-burning stoves are feeding coal into them, and the odds are not in the Sells' favor.
Wood-burning stoves are not designed for the higher temperatures created by smoldering coal, but at least one-quarter of all people with wood-burning stoves are using coal, according to a recent study.
Each resident battling the benefits and hazards of a wood-burning stove has found the balance between keeping the coals warm enough to heat the home and allowing the pipe to become hot enough to ignite the roof or surrounding walls.
"The wood burns really quickly, so we use that during the day," Sells said. "When we're sleeping, we burn coal because it keeps the house warm longer."
In the mornings, Sells stokes the coals and adds wood, keeping the fire burning all winter.
Burning coal is a tradition among Navajo, but it also, day in and day out, is killing them.
The two coal-fired power plants in the Shiprock area are, together, the second-largest coal consumer in the United States, yet a 2010 survey of Shiprock homes revealed that 25 percent of stoves burning coal were not designed for that fuel.
The study, published in the "Journal of Environmental and Public Health," also found that indoor coal combustion led to high levels of fine particulate matter, raising concerns about respiratory health.
Sells has asthma, and her doctor advised her not to burn coal.
"The fumes from the coal, the smoke, makes it worse," she said.
Sells is not alone, according to the study, which found American Indians suffer disproportionately from respiratory morbidity compared to the general U.S. population.
The study, backed by the United States Geological Survey, a subsidy of the Department of the Interior, examined respiratory data from Northern Navajo Medical Center between 1997 and 2003, documented fuel and stove types in homes, analyzed coal samples and measured airborne fine particulate matter.
During the course of the study, interviews were conducted in 137 Shiprock households. Approximately 77 percent of those surveyed used an indoor stove for heating. The remainder had electrical or other heating units. One-quarter of those surveyed were burning coal in stoves that were not designed to operate at the higher temperatures, the study states.
"Many of the stoves had visible cracks or were poorly ventilated to the outside," the study reported. "A similar fraction of the stoves were 10 years old or older."
The study also took into account that very few Navajo are regular smokers. An estimated 4 percent of the Navajo Nation population smokes regularly, roughly one-eighth the smoking rate among non-Navajos, the study states.
"Worldwide, indoor air pollution is recognized as a major risk factor for respiratory morbidity, especially among cultures burning biomass for cooking and heating," it states. "Many Navajo Nation residents burn locally mined coal in their homes for heat, as this coal is the most economical energy source. ... The result is polluted air that may pose a health threat to residents. Additionally, the very young and the elderly spend more time indoors during winter when coal may be used for home heating, and people in these ages groups tend to have compromised immunity relative to people in middle age."
The study further states that Shiprock residents also are exposed to ambient pollutants derived from the two coal-fired power plants nearby.
"The power plants near Shiprock produce noticeable amounts of smog, visible from miles away and often trapped low in the San Juan Basin by thermal atmospheric inversions," the study states. "... Because it is so obviously visible, power plant smog is generally regarded by locals as one of the causes, if not the main cause, of respiratory disease — thus it is perceived as a primary risk factor. Although it may indeed be one risk factor, the real risk may in fact be greater from the indoor combustion of coal in nonoptimal stoves."
Weighing the options
Coal, a major money-maker on the reservation, may contribute more benefits than risks, according to economic figures.
Coal mines and coal-fired power plants provide about 1,500 jobs and more than one-third of the tribe's annual operating budget. Yet the income from coal has dwindled during recent years as federal and state regulations have imposed restrictions and reduced demand.
The coal industry began for the Navajo in 1957 when the tribe and Utah International Inc. signed a contract for coal mining on the reservation. Utah International and Arizona Public Service developed the Four Corners Power Plant next to the mine, and coal deliveries began in 1962.
The total generating capacity of the Four Corners Power Plant is 2,040 megawatts, and the capacity of the neighboring San Juan Generating Station is 1,800 megawatts. Most of the generated power is transmitted off the reservation to customers as far away as Las Vegas and Los Angeles.
BHP leases the coal mines from the Navajo Nation, and, as part of the lease agreement, Navajo who reside within a certain radius from the mine are entitled to free, low-rank coal.
Many people who live in the San Juan Basin, however, choose to buy coal of a superior quality, a decision that launched the bustling industry of roadside coal vending.
One such vendor, Jonathan Brown, of Crownpoint, sells coal near the Shiprock Flea Market every day during the winter, the heavy white bags bulging with coal. He hauls coal from out of state and markets it as such.
"We get the coal from Colorado," he said. "It's better there."
Brown caters to a steady stream of customers, most of whom cannot afford the more expensive and safer methods of heating.
"After 5 o'clock, that's when the biggest selling period is," he said. "We catch them when they're going home from work."
Coal is waning in demand and viability, however.
Two coal mines on the Navajo or neighboring Hopi reservations have shut down in the last five years, and the federal Environmental Protection Agency is requiring Four Corners Power Plant to upgrade emission controls, a project that comes with a $717 million price tag.
The EPA further called the Four Corners Power Plant and San Juan Generation Station two of the largest air polluters in the country, emitting nitrogen oxides that can result in asthma, bronchitis, heart conditions and other health problems.
Neither Shiprock nor the Navajo Nation has consistent systems in place to monitor air quality, either indoor or outdoor, said Charlene Nelson, environmental program supervisor for the Navajo Environmental Protection Agency.
Yet a culture dependent on coal may find alternatives hard to find.
"One expedient improvement to indoor air quality in Navajo homes would be to upgrade or exchange old stoves or those inappropriate for burning coal," the study states. "Given economic realities on the reservation, such action would likely necessitate intervention by an entity such as a large corporation or a philanthropic foundation."