SHIPROCK, N.M. — Rowena Sells had a choice. Friday, Oct. 29..
She had to choose between propane and coal to heat her home, a decision encountered by many residents of the 27,000-square-mile Navajo reservation and surrounding areas.
It's not an easy choice.
Sells said propane costs about $3,000 to keep the home she shares with her husband, Carson, warm through the winter. Coal, though cheaper, comes with crushing risks.
Rooftop shingles blister in the sun, curling at the edges like leaves above Sells' home. Smoke exhales from rusting chimneys perched atop nearly every roof and the smell of smoldering wood and coal punctuates the air.
Power lines crisscross the sky, delivering electricity and phone services to most residents. Sells, who operates Noah's Ark Ministry next to her home, has running water and many other modern amenities. One thing she lacks, however, is a safe and affordable way to heat her home.
"Propane doesn't warm the whole trailer," she said. "It's too expensive. It takes a lot of money. Having a stove is much better, but I'm not supposed to have a stove in a trailer."
Despite the very real risk of a structure fire, Sells installed a stove last year.
A 250-pound tank of propane costs about $500, she said. A tank lasts two or three weeks. By contrast, coal can be purchased for $10 per bag or $250 for a truckload, she said. A bag lasts two or three days.
Wood is even cheaper at $10 for a truckload from southern Colorado, Sells said. But a hot stove must be tended all the time.
"We have to be around home to keep feeding the fire," Carson Sells said. Otherwise, they might see their breath inside their own home. An icy home also can lead to additional problems such as broken pipes or other damage.
The couple took precautions when installing the stove by putting ceramic tiles on surrounding walls to insulate them from the heat. They also hired a professional to position the pipe through the roof.
Yet months of burning wood during the day and stoking coals at night in this brittle winter environment is a disaster waiting to happen, Sells said. Couple that with the fact that many owners of wood-burning stoves are feeding coal into them, and the odds are not in the Sells' favor.
Wood-burning stoves are not designed for the higher temperatures created by smoldering coal, but at least one-quarter of all people with wood-burning stoves are using coal, according to a recent study.
"The wood burns really quickly, so we use that during the day," Sells said. "When we're sleeping, we burn coal because it keeps the house warm longer."
In the mornings, Sells stokes the coals and adds wood, keeping the fire burning all winter.
Burning coal is a tradition among Navajo, but it also is killing them.
The two coal-fired power plants in the Shiprock area are, together, the second-largest coal consumer in the United States, yet a 2010 survey of Shiprock homes revealed that 25 percent of stoves burning coal were not designed for that fuel.
The study, published in the Journal of Environmental and Public Health, also found indoor coal combustion led to high levels of fine particulate matter, raising concerns about respiratory health.
Sells has asthma and her doctor advised her not to burn coal.
"The fumes from the coal, the smoke, makes it worse," she said.
The study found American Indians suffer disproportionately from respiratory morbidity compared to the general U.S. population.
The study, backed by the United States Geological Survey, examined respiratory data from Northern Navajo Medical Center between 1997 and 2003, documented fuel and stove types in homes, analyzed coal samples and measured airborne fine particulate matter.
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Interviews were conducted in 137 Shiprock households. Approximately 77 percent of those surveyed used an indoor stove for heating. The remainder had electrical or other heating units.
One-quarter of those surveyed were burning coal in stoves that weren't designed to operate at the higher temperatures, the study states.
"Many of the stoves had visible cracks or were poorly ventilated to the outside," the study reported. "A similar fraction of the stoves were 10 years old or older."
The study further states that Shiprock residents also are exposed to ambient pollutants derived from the two coal-fired power plants nearby.