FARMINGTON — Cloaking her hands in leather gloves, Vanessa Barber opens the small door to her dark stove, an orange glow lighting her face.

Inside the stove, a pile of coal smolders. Its flames are low and sleepy, but the warmth it gives off is strong.

"We've always used coal," Barber said. "It keeps the house warm."

Though rare in other parts of the country, the use of coal to heat homes is surprisingly common on the 27,000 square-mile Navajo Nation.

For miles upon miles, homes dot the countryside from their roofs, tiny plumes of soot smoke through blackened chimney tops. Inside the homes, stoves are backed into the corner and are stuffed with shiny lumps of coal, a readily available and cheap resource on the reservation.

Of the reservation's wealth of natural resources, coal is one of the most frequently used in the every day life of the Navajo. It warms their homes, and provides them with jobs. Recent events threaten both winter warmth and job security for the future.

An uncertain future

As the United States Environmental Protection Agency has cracked down on pollution emissions for local coal-powered plants, several are adjusting their future plans.

Arizona Public Service Co. plans to decommission its three oldest units at Four Corners Power Plant by the end of the year, and the San Juan Generation Station is expected to close down two of its units by December 2017.


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Together, the two plants are considered the second-largest coal consumer in the nation, according to a 2010 study published in the Journal of Environmental Public Health. The study analyzed the effects of coal pollution on the general population of Shiprock.

The Navajo Generating Station also may close down, completely, by 2019 if it does not want to invest in the new emissions controls that the EPA is proposing. The new controls may come at a price tag of more than $1.1 billion.

Aside from jobs, each of these plants gives purpose to the handful of coal mines that are in the Four Corners area. In the case that the plants slowly close down, so too might the coal mines that are there to support them unless they quickly find other large-scale customers.

"They mine coal to take it to the power plants, but I don't think that they can stay open just to put coal in people's fireplaces," said Lacie Brown, whose family has sold coal in Kirtland on-and-off for the past 20 or so years.

The Kayenta Mine, for instance, is part of the Navajo Generating Station and would be shut down if the plant closed. Hundreds of nearby residents are employed at the mine, and also get their coal from the Kayenta Mine, creating a collection line that often gets to be two- to three-miles long.

"Some of the Navajo people get free coal up there from the plant mines," said Mike Crawford, owner of Hay Gulch Coal, LLC in Hesperus, Colo.

BHP Billiton Limited, the company that leases the mine, is by law required to provide coal free of charge to Navajo who reside within a certain radius of the operation, according to the 2010 study.

Still, Crawford has gained a number of clients simply because the wait for coal is too long at the Kayenta Mine.

Crawford, who has distributed coal for years for King Coal Mine in Hesperus, expects a quick closure of the mines if the plants all shut down.

If those mines shut down, it will greatly affect how easily Navajo in the most rural areas access their coal, just as it did several years ago when a mine near Gallup closed.

"A lot of the elderly Navajo and the poor people like the coal," Crawford said. "It would be so absolutely devastating."

Crawford expects some mines, such as the one he works with, to survive because they have more diverse clientele.

"They mine their coal for concrete, but I have a lot of customers that come up to buy coal to heat their homes," Crawford, who said the King Coal Mine originally opened to provide coal for homes about 100 years ago.

They have not changed their prices for 14 years.

"I know a lot of my customers have fixed incomes," Crawford said, explaining that he made a deal with the mine a number of years ago, disallowing it to raise his prices. "I told (my customers) I would not change the prices."

Still in demand

As with most sellers, Crawford sells bags at about $10 each. A ton of coal, at an estimated cost of $90, equates to about $875 in wood, Crawford said.

"Coal is the most efficient heat for your dollar," Crawford said.

Because it is so affordable, and because it is so readily available, Navajo families for years have relied on it to keep their homes warm. Some families have switched over to propane, though it is not quite as easy to acquire, nor is it as cheap.

"With propane, there's miles and miles of bad road. The propane trucks can't get in during the winter sometimes, so (the families) set there cold," Crawford said.

On a wet, winter day, Tom, a Shonto, Ariz., man who goes only by his first name and sells coal near the Bisti Highway in Farmington, stood in the center of a pullout just off the highway and one by one customers came, from Farmington, from Lake Valley, from Counselor, from all over the reservation.

Tom unloaded his trailer of the shiny, glistening black lumps at a steady pace, hoping to be rid of the haul by day's end.

"It keeps me busy," he said, explaining that he does not expect his business to slow any time soon.

A future without coal

A future without coal perhaps would not be the worst, given that it is a notoriously unhealthy pollutant, for both people and the atmosphere.

Several of the mines are known to have "bad" coal, coal that smells, burns out quicker and has a higher ash content. Ash has been linked to respiratory illness in various health studies.

"Compared to coal from other parts of the reservation, such as Black Mesa, Shiprock area coal tends to be lower in quality," the 2010 journal study said.

Shiprock's residents were found to have unusually high rates of respiratory disease, partially because of exposure to power plant smog but more likely because of the exposure to coal fumes within their own homes.

The study found that about 25 percent of the families who use coal to heat their homes are not using stoves designed for such purposes, and the "air quality was frequently found to be of a level to raise concerns."

While some of the younger Navajo are realizing the dangers of heating with coal, it still may be a while before it is completely out of the picture.

Without infrastructure, and without much funding it may be a while before the most isolated of Navajo can afford to heat their homes any other way. Though, it certainly is a discussion that both coal distributors and consumers are having.

"We've often wondered what the next generation is going to bring," Crawford said.