Illegal Dumps Overwhelm Northern Arizona Tribes

By Laurel Morales
June 25, 2015
Laurel Morales
The Navajo solid waste management workers have counted more than 300 illegal dumpsites on the Navajo Nation.

On the western edge of the Navajo Nation in Tuba City, there’s a popular scenic spot called Castle Rock.

As you approach a large hand painted sign reads, “Please no dumping!” Drive a quarter mile towards the butte, and alongside the dirt road, you’ll see a soggy gray couch and a scattered half-burned pile of trash.

Tyler Tawahongva, who is Hopi, joked that he’d like to recreate the iconic 1970s public service announcement, where Iron Eyes Cody sheds a tear over pollution.

"He saw all the litter in the lands in the cities," Tawahongva said. "So I was thinking this would be the perfect backdrop to do that spoof with a tear in my eye."

Ironically, Iron Eyes Cody was used as a symbol of love for the land, yet now the problem in Indian country is that it’s Native Americans doing the polluting. Tawahongva wants to change that.

"Traditionally we’ve been recyclers," Tawahongva said. "We used everything from our hunting, whatever we gathered everything was used. Unfortunately, Westernization — whatever you want to call it — we’ve gotten a little away from that."

Tawahongva has made it his mission to bring recycling back. And the problem he’s addressing is huge. The Navajo and Hopi tribes cover an area the size of Ireland. Combined, they produce an estimated 300 million pounds of trash a year — and today there are few places to dump trash legally.

Laurel Morales
Castle Rock, a popular scenic area in Tuba City, has been used as a dumpsite.

In 1979, the federal government tightened landfill regulations to do things such as protect groundwater and prevent fires. The Navajo Nation was unable to comply with the new policy, so it closed all 10 of its landfills.

Now the Navajo and Hopi tribes pay to have their trash brought to transfer stations, where it is hauled several miles away to landfills on the outskirts of the reservations. Many who live on dirt roads don’t have any trash service, so some people just dump it in ditches.

James Benally runs the solid waste management program for the Navajo Nation. Benally and his crew have cleaned up more than a 150 of these illegal dumpsites in the last few years. But he’s counted at least 300 that remain. And it costs money.

"For now, the picture looks bleak as far as cleaning up the rest of the illegal dump sites," Benally said.

Recycler Tyler Tawahongva said if more people recycled, there would be less trash to dump. A year and a half ago Tawahongva quit his job as a substance-abuse counselor when he realized he could make money recycling. He makes his rounds each day to a hotel, a grocery store and a hospital to pick up as much recycling as he can stuff in the back of his minivan.

He’s made agreements with each business to set aside recyclables for him. Sometimes the bins start to overflow before he can get to them.

Laurel Morales
Tyler Tawahongva pulls cardboard out of the Tuba City transfer station to recycle. He can get $70 for each ton of cardboard.

"When they start overflowing I get calls," Tawahongva said. "They’ll say we’ll just 'throw it in the trash’ — the worst five words of a recycler."

One of his many stops is the transfer station, where people are supposed to throw their trash and recyclables.

Once he’s accumulated enough cardboard, metal and plastic in his backyard, Tawahongva rents a large truck and hauls the recyclables down to Phoenix, a total of 350 miles. There he gets $70 for each ton of cardboard. The price recently dropped. So with the cost of gas eating away at his profits, lately he’s barely broke even. 

Still, its worth it, he said.

"I don’t think I could sleep at night if I knew it was all going to the trash," Tawahongva said.

Tawahongva dreams of someday operating a regional recycling outfit on the reservation that generates substantial revenue.