The Navajos, who operate a semi-autonomous nation covering 27,000 square miles in Arizona, Utah and New Mexico, have long depended on coal as an economic mainstay for jobs and electricity. But dwindling coal deposits have many rethinking the role of coal in the Navajo Nation. As the New York Times reports, more Navajos are calling for renewable energies and eco-tourism to take a larger role in the Navajo Nation.

Power plant emissions, as well as water contamination, smog and soot, have long taxed the environment and health of the 300,000-member Navajo Nation. Curtis Yazzie lives near the Kayenta coal mine. As he told the N.Y. Times, “Quite a few of my relatives have made a good living working for the coal mine, but a lot of them are beginning to have health problems. I don’t know how it’s going to affect me.”

Others within the nation argue that taking resources from the land is similar to “cutting skin” and betraying the group’s mission to protect the Earth. Earl Tulley is an environmentalist and Navajo housing official who is running for vice president of the Navajo Nation on Nov. 2. According to Tulley, “We need to look at the bigger picture of sustainable development.” Tully argues that it is time for the Navajo to “wean themselves” away from coal and turn to cleaner energies, such as sun and wind power.

This move is not just prompted by a sense of environmentalism among the Navajo. At present, coal provides one third of the operating budget for the tribe and 1,500 jobs in a region where unemployment is 50 to 60 percent. But the group’s income from coal has dropped from 20 to 15 percent in the past few years. What’s more, many Navajo say they have seen few benefits from the coal industry — but plenty of ill-effects.

Two coal mines have shut down in the past five years, one because its operator refused to pay for the $1.2 billion retrofit demanded by the EPA to bring the mine up to current environmental standards. And in 2009, the EPA withdrew permits for a massive power plant when it was determined that the environmental impact would be too great.

Some worry that relying on renewable energies as an economic mainstay is a losing gamble for the Navajo. Peabody Energy owns the recently shuttered Black Mesa mine. The company argues that renewable energy projects “won’t come close” to providing the economic gains of the coal industry, which is said to have generated more than $12 billion in economic benefits over the past 40 years.

Nonetheless, many Navajo remain undeterred, noting that coal is temporary. But sun and wind will always remain in the Navajo Nation.

For further reading:

Navajos move toward renewable energy
Some Navajos want to move towards wind and sun energy and away from coal as economic lifeline.