The View from Two Feet on the Ground

About the Author: Kathleen Stewart is an Environmental Scientist with the U.S. EPA’s Pacific Southwest Region in San Francisco, where she works with communities to reduce exposure to indoor and outdoor air pollution.

Shiprock, New Mexico

Shiprock, New Mexico

Between the daunting back-log of emails that accumulate and the logistical and emotional baggage that accompanies saying good-bye to my two young kids, some part of me usually dreads packing my bags for work-related travel. But no conference call or email can pack in the amount of progress that comes with placing two feet solidly on the ground in an attempt to better understand the environmental issues facing the communities I work with and for.

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Stakeholder meeting at Diné College

In 2009 Perry Charley – a professor with the Navajo Nation’s Diné College – hosted me for an environmental tour of Shiprock, New Mexico, a town in the north-east reaches of the Navajo Nation. I got the education of a lifetime crammed into a few short days, and a project spanning seven years and counting.

In my time with Professor Charley, I learned that many Navajo families rely on wood to keep warm during the cold season, using stoves that are very old, are often cracked, and are sometimes no more than a 55-gallon drum. These stoves lose their heat quickly, leading many families to burn large chunks of low-grade coal to stay warm at night. The stoves are also often poorly vented, and are not designed to burn both wood and coal. As a result, many Navajo families are exposed to high levels of wood and coal smoke indoors and out.

Kathleen Stewart looking at stoves for sale at Big Rock Trading Post in Waterflow, NM

Kathleen Stewart looking at stoves for sale at Big Rock Trading Post in Waterflow, NM

Since that week in 2009, EPA has been working closely with Professor Charley, the Navajo Nation EPA, and many other partners to address the resulting health and environmental risks. Thanks to the education we’ve received from our community partners on the Navajo Nation, we have sought to incorporate Navajo traditional knowledge and to respect the preferences and traditions of the community.

Progress, as it often is, has been slow but steady, building piece by piece over many years.

Through a grant to Diné College under EPA’s Community Action for a Renewed Environment program, we built partnerships to learn from the community. With funding from EPA’s Office of Research and Development and assistance from the University of Colorado, Boulder, we continued our partnership with Diné College, analyzing solutions from both the “western science” perspective, as well as from the “Navajo” perspective, incorporating Navajo Fundamental Law, traditional knowledge, and community preference. We developed outreach materials and a radio PSA with the Navajo Nation EPA.

Four Corners Power Plant

Four Corners Power Plant

A recent settlement agreement between EPA and several electric utilities will provide $3.2 million in funding for new, cleaner burning stoves and $1.5 million for weatherization for Navajo Nation homes near the Four Corners Power Plant over the next five years. U.S. EPA, the Navajo Nation EPA, and the Hearth Patio and BBQ Association Education Foundation will host stove installation training on the Navajo Nation later this year.

Wood and coal in Navajo Stove (photo courtesy of Nolan Hoskie, Navajo Nation EPA)

Wood and coal in Navajo Stove (photo courtesy of Nolan Hoskie, Navajo Nation EPA)

 

With many Navajo families burning both wood and coal, we are working to overcome the unique technical challenges this presents. New EPA-certified wood stoves burn wood more efficiently and with far less pollution than older stoves, but are not designed to burn coal. This has left us without a suitable heater for many Navajo families. We are working with stove manufacturers to design duel-fuel stoves to meet this need and are developing a stove testing method that will be representative of real-world use on the Navajo Nation.

As I get ready to pack my bags for an upcoming trip to the Navajo Nation, I know that the knowledge and connections I gain from these days out of the office will far exceed the number of emails that await me on my return.

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