Coal Mine’s Closure Leaves Hopi, Navajo Homes Without Heat This Winter

Jan 10, 2020

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. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny reports on what Hopi community leaders call a devastating crisis.

A home on the Hopi Nation that has had to transition from coal to wood for heating.
Credit Melissa Sevigny

The Kayenta Mine is a 2 hour drive from Monica Nuvasma’s home in Shongopovi on Second Mesa. Before the mine closed she used to go there to collect coal for her grandmother. She recalls waiting in line for 10 hours, “and when we got to the entrance the mine had closed by 3 o’clock. There were many families who were leaving before midnight the day before just to be parked in line.”

But Nuvamsa says the drive was worth it. Two or three truckloads of coal could warm a house all winter. “Coal economically works better because it burns longer, you don’t need as much in order to heat your home,” she says.”

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.

Nuvasma says, “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.”

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.”

Workers employed by the Village of Tewa chop wood delivered from the White Mountain Apache Timber Company.
Credit Melissa Sevigny

It takes Sekakuku and her three children a full day to gather a truckload of wood, which only lasts one week. “It’s just a lot of physical work,” she says. “And not everyone is able to afford wood, but it’s a necessity now.”

Melissa Alcala is the community service administrator for the Village of Tewa on First Mesa. She started a new program this winter in response to Kayenta’s closure to get regular deliveries of wood from the White Mountain Apache Timber Company.

Melissa Alcala, center, with wood chopping crew
Credit Melissa Sevigny

Workers chop the timber into small sizes called Soh’so wood, the Hopi word for grandmother. Alcala explains, “We cut them up into Soh’so woods, so they’re not heavy to lift. We want to make it as easy as possible for elders to keep warm.”

The village sells the wood for $240 a cord, but Alcala says elders get a supply for free, “because some of them are burning their clothes now. They’re burning weeds … It kills me to not be able to help. However I only service this village.”

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.