coal in the Navajo Nation: Climate impacts, environmental perspectives

By Dalia A.E. Sanchez

To this day, our main focus as a society has been on how to profit economically throughout life. In this situation with the Navajo Nation, they have found a way to profit economically from their natural areas that contain large supplies of coal and oil. These areas have been stripped of their natural resources to provide a source of income to the Navajo Nation and jobs to those living on the Navajo reservation. Due to the harvesting and use of the coal and oil on the reservation, there have been noticeable impacts on the health of individuals living on the reservation. Along with this, the production and use of fossil fuel energies emit carbon dioxide and other harmful particles into the atmosphere which increases the impact of climate change. The safety and health of the individuals and our environment are not normally considered in great detail. In this instance, the health of both was not a primary focus when it came to the decision to produce and use fossil fuels from the Navajo Nation land. 

Climate Change Impacts:

There is a vast usage of fossil fuel energy across the United States that has led communities like the Navajo Nation to be left with relying on coal and oil production for jobs and economic vitality of their own community. The use of fossil fuels as any source of energy leads to pollution. Increases in pollution in the atmosphere are known to increase the effects of climate change. Climate change is a significant change in the climate patterns compared to usual due to the increase in carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere produced by the use of fossil fuels. It is very often interchanged with global warming. Both are very similar as they interplay with one another, but the very definition, they are slightly different. The effects of oil and coal production can take a toll on the health of individuals and the environment. Some environmental impacts from the production and use of fossil fuels include pollution of all kinds going into the atmosphere, decreases in air and water quality, polar ice caps melting, rising earth and ocean temperatures, and increases in worsened weather patterns and natural disasters. Those most affected by the degradation of the environment and climate change effects are Indigenous people, people of color, and poor people. An example of this is the Navajo Nation. The community was able to profit economically from coal and oil production while also gaining jobs for its community members. What they did not realize was at the same time, they were not considering the concerns for potential effects on their health and the health of the environment. 

Human Health Impacts:

Numerous health studies and reports have been done over time. An issue with connecting health issues with environmental pollution is the time and amount of pollution it can take to show visible health impacts is unknown. Scientists follow the concept that correlation does not equal causation. With that being said, there have been increases in asthma rates and severity on the Navajo Reservation. This health issue can be attributed to both indoor and outdoor pollution from coal production and use as on the reservation, coal and wood are used for heating and cooking indoors. Some examples of the indoor pollutants include home heating systems, wood-burning or coal-powered stoves, tobacco and traditional ceremonial smoke, and ambient pollutants. One comparison can be seen in the asthma rates among children in the United States compared to children on the Navajo reservation. Approximately 8% of children in the United States have asthma compared to over 13% of Navajo children. Along with this, you are more likely to have asthma and die from it if you are a female compared to being male. 

Sustainability:

Sustainability is the ability to be maintained at a certain rate or level. It normally refers to the use of natural resources that cannot be replenished which makes the resources unsustainable. In our current day, many organizations and communities have tried to shift awareness so that we may all live in sustainable ways. One way to be more sustainable is to consider all aspects and impacts your lifestyle might have. For example, the Navajo Nation has tried to have a focus on all aspects of its society. Because of this, there are twelve councils within the Executive Branch of the Navajo government. One of those councils is the Division of Natural Resources (DNR) that handles the “land, water, power, and quality of life” on the reservation and of its members as stated by the DNR vision statement. Leaders within the Navajo Nation have said the income from coal has dwindled 15 to 20 percent in recent years due to federal and state pollution regulations imposing costly restrictions and lessening the demand for mining. Once fossil fuels were realized to be an unsustainable practice that has brought negative health and environmental, the Navajo people began to look at ways to become sustainable. One innovation they are considering is wind energy. Due to the location of the reservation, there is areas that are very mountainous and have the potential to generate large amounts of energy.  Wind energy has the potential to surpass the amount of energy generated from fossil fuels as it is a clean energy source that is consistently replenished.

Citations:

Asthma Facts and Figures. (2019, June). Retrieved March 12, 2020, from https://www.aafa.org/asthma-facts/?gclid=Cj0KCQjw9ZzzBRCKARIsANwXaeL-D_8v1IWF9PEkzG48wa2hyEV8ziYTzv8573iCDBtkKPdRGtK_TYUaAsD3EALw_wcB

Bunnell, E., J., Garcia, V., L., M., J., Lerch, . Furst. (2010, June 30). Navajo Coal Combustion and Respiratory Health Near Shiprock, New Mexico. Retrieved March 12, 2020, from https://www.hindawi.com/journals/jeph/2010/260525/

Environmental Defense Fund. (n.d.). This is why fighting climate change is so urgent. Retrieved March 14, 2020, from https://www.edf.org/climate/why-fighting-climate-change-so-urgent?gclid=Cj0KCQjw6sHzBRCbARIsAF8FMpWgLOC92-WH14S1906cOUalVRGqWXwDS6eubVcaP2FQIgaSfqNEpTsaAh8aEALw_wcB&utm_campaign=ggad_climate_pd_dmt&utm_id=1485443267&utm_medium=cpc&utm_source=google

History. (2011). Retrieved March 14, 2020, from https://www.navajo-nsn.gov/history.htm

Lowe, A. A., Bender, B. H., Liu, A. B., Solomon, T. undefined, Kobernick, A. undefined, Morgan, W. undefined, & Gerald, L. undefined. (2018, February 27). Environmental Concerns for Children with Asthma on the Navajo Nation. Retrieved March 12, 2020, from https://www.atsjournals.org/doi/full/10.1513/AnnalsATS.201708-674PS  

Navajo Nation. (n.d.). Division of Natural Resources Home. Retrieved March 14, 2020, from https://www.dnr.navajo-nsn.gov/

Navarro, M. (2010, October 25). Navajos Hope to Shift From Coal to Wind and Sun. Retrieved March 15, 2020, from https://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/26/science/earth/26navajo.html

Rainey, J. (2018, December 18). Coal Mining in Navajo Nation: Are the consequences worth it? Retrieved March 14, 2020, from https://www.nbcnews.com/specials/navajo-coal

Thompson, J. (2019, February 14). Environmental victories don’t guarantee economic justice. Retrieved March 15, 2020, from https://www.hcn.org/issues/51.4/coal-environmental-victories-dont-guarantee-economic-justice-navajo-generating-station

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