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Scenes from Bisti Fuels Company's free coal distribution program for members of the Navajo Nation at Navajo Mine in Fruitland on Feb. 6, 2020. Farmington Daily Times

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FRUITLAND — Nickolas Jones sat in the passenger seat of his father's pickup truck and waited to haul coal from Navajo Mine. The Jones family lives in a mobile home in Tsé Daa K'aan Chapter. A stove that uses firewood and coal is the family's only source of heat.

"Coal's better. It provides more heat," Jones said.

Chapter members from Gadii'ahi, Tsé Daa K'aan, Huerfano, Littlewater, Nahodishgish, Newcomb and Kayenta drove to Navajo Mine on Feb. 6 to receive free coal from the Community Heating Resource Program offered by Navajo Transitional Energy Company and Bisti Fuels Company.

MORE: Take a look inside the San Juan Generating Station

The distribution of coal by the two companies stems from a similar program started in the 1980s by then mine owner BHP Billiton.

The program operated by NTEC and Bisti Fuels gave out coal to 28 chapters in the Northern and Eastern chapters, but the service expanded in November to all 110 chapters on the Navajo Nation and to the 12 villages of the Hopi Tribe.

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Electricity, natural gas and propane services scarce

The extension was due to the closure of the Kayenta Mine in August. The surface coal mine operated on the Black Mesa region on Navajo and Hopi lands and supplied coal to the shuttered Navajo Generating Station near Page, Arizona.

During Kayenta's operation, it provided coal for residents from surrounding chapters to use during the winter. With electricity, natural gas and propane services remaining scarce, many tribal members rely on firewood and coal to heat homes.

It is not mandatory for the chapters and villages to participate in the Community Heating Resource Program and, so far, 85 chapters and four villages have registered, according to Bisti Fuels.

Under the program, chapters can decide whether to distribute tickets to chapter members, so they can receive coal on days scheduled by Bisti Fuels, or do bulk pick up, where the chapter sends its own trucks then decides how to distribute coal to its chapter membership.

Andy Hawkins, community engagement manager for Bisti Fuels, said to meet the new demand, the companies revamped the process for dispensing coal to tribal members starting in November through early March.

Extending the reach of the program

The new process allows chapter members to drive their pickup trucks into the coal distribution area, then a skid loader drops up to one ton of coal into the truck bed.

Up to 85 pickup trucks visit the mine during individual distribution days – scheduled Monday through Thursday – so the process is efficient in getting participants in and out in a timely matter, Hawkins said.

"With the closure of Kayenta, NTEC and Bisti Fuels are trying to fill the gap. We talked about the fact that we're going to triple in size. Normally, we see around 2,230 visitors in a season. This year, we're almost at 6,000," he said.

There were 1,731 visits in January and February was at 190 visits as of Feb. 4, according to Bisti Fuels.

NTEC and Bisti Fuels are examining how to further develop the program, especially to help chapters located three to four hours away from the mine.

One idea is collaborating with the Navajo Nation government to set up regional distribution sites, Hawkins said.

"That would help the program reach a lot more people," he said.

For Leroy Cadman, driving more than two hours from his home in Kayenta to Navajo Mine has become the new normal.

It has been a challenge to keep his house warm now that Kayenta Mine is closed and the nearest area to cut and haul firewood is the Cedar Mesa area in Utah.

Adding to the obstacle is the territorial manner some community members have developed over cutting trees on land near residences, Cadman said.

"Yeah, it got harder. The money, we could be using, but we had to run out here to get coal. Like I said, we have to. We don't have a choice," he said.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 or by email at nsmith@daily-times.com.

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