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Navajo Nation EPA official says one-fourth of homes on the reservation incorrectly burn coal in wood-burning stoves

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FARMINGTON — Tribal officials have implemented open burning regulations and are educating the public about the safe use of indoor stoves as part of a program to improve residential air quality on the Navajo Nation.

"We’re looking at indoor air quality because one-fourth of homes are inappropriately burning coal in wood-burning stoves, and this causes respiratory issues," said Michael King, a senior environmental specialist with the Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency, during today's Four Corners Air Quality Group meeting at the San Juan College School of Energy.

The group meets annually to update the public on various issues affecting air quality. Today, officials representing health and environmental agencies in Colorado, New Mexico, the Navajo Navajo and the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, as well as several energy industry agencies, presented updates on their air quality monitoring and improvement programs.

King told people attending the meeting that medical facilities on the Navajo Nation are reporting more admissions for respiratory issues, especially in the winter.

"This coincides with the times when people are adding coal to the stoves, which introduces particles into living areas," he said. "Our program is doing a lot of outreach to let residents know how they can improve air quality, such as keeping the chimney and stove clean, using proper ventilation and installing smoke and carbon dioxide alarms."

King said his agency is also working with the Four Corners Power Plant on a project to replace 750 stoves in the Shiprock area over five years.

King explained his agency uses three stations to monitor ozone, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide and particulate levels on the 27,000 square miles that make up the Navajo Nation. He said data from the stations show those levels are below national standards.

Also at the meeting, Maureen Gannon, executive director for environment and safety at Public Service Co. of New Mexico, spoke about emissions at the San Juan Generating Station. She said emissions of pollutants have dramatically decreased after the plant added emissions controls.

"We’re seeing good trends downward in emissions such as (carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide), as well as mercury and particulate matter," she said.

Gannon said she expects that trend to continue next year after two of the plant’s units are shut down as part of an agreement with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to bring the plant into compliance with federal haze standards.

"This will result in 6 million tons less carbon dioxide per year, which will mean a system-wide reduction of 23 percent," she said.

Gannon said PNM is working on an integrated resource plan to determine how the company will operate over the next 20 years.

PNM plans to complete the draft by March 2017 and submit it to the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission by July.

Tom Moore with Western Regional Air Partnership offered updates on a San Juan Basin study being conducted in conjunction with several federal agencies.

"We are doing a lot of modeling to look at regional air quality," he said. "We’ll be looking at ozone and haze levels and will come up with recommendations. There’s a lot of monitoring in the Four Corners region, including regulations pertaining to oil and gas leasing."

Moore said ozone levels look better this year, but more regional analysis is needed.

"We will have guidance and rule proposals in 2017 and 2018," he said.

Leigh Black Irvin is the business editor for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4621.

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