After Revenue Loss From Coal, Hopi Scramble To Fill Budget Gap
Coal has been at the center of the Hopi Tribe's universe for decades, literally. At the center of each home is a coal-burning stove that keeps families warm through the winter.
"A lot of people relied on the coal to heat their homes and ceremonial chambers, the kivas. And now we're only relying on the cedarwood," said Leigh Wayne Lomayestewa, who works in the tribe's cultural preservation office.
He said cedar doesn't burn as long as coal.
"Usually at nighttime, it'll burn for a while," Lomayestewa said. "So you can put in about two or three times a night just to keep your house warm, just get up in the middle of the night to add more into the fire."
Some of the Hopi villages still live without electricity and running water. They rely on propane or kerosene lanterns and haul water from many miles away.
In addition to heat, the tribe relied on the coal industry's royalty checks to cover 80% of its budget. Peabody Energy and the Navajo Generating Station provided 750 jobs to mostly Navajos, and some Hopis. Two years ago, the Salt River Project and other utilities voted to shut down the West's largest coal-fired power plant because natural gas and solar energy had become much more cost-competitive.
Hopi Vice Chairman Clark Tenakhongva said that has left both Navajo and Hopi tribes scrambling to find new sources of revenue.
"So with really nothing right now over the horizon with what revenues we have, what investments we have over the last 40-50 years at the level we're operating, we could survive another six to seven years on what we have," Tenakhongva said.
That doesn't give them much time to get a new revenue generator off the ground. So the Hopi tribal council is busy fielding economic development proposals from various companies.
Tenakhongva said they have many options. It's just a matter of agreeing on one.
"We've got property in Winslow," Tenakhongva said. "We've got the I-40 corridor that has mass amounts of land that could be developed. The money's not going to come there the first two years but by 8-10 years we'll have something that we can say, 'yeah, this is the Hopi casino. Yeah, this is the Hopi ranch serving nothing but prime Hopi beef.'"
There's also tourism. The Hopi are working with the Navajo to build a road that would loop them into popular destinations like Monument Valley and Canyon de Chelly for tour companies coming from Las Vegas to Indian Country.
Tenakhongva is even open to unusual ideas like the one pitched by TJ Agardy at a recent council meeting. Agardy's group proposes technology used in Germany and Japan to harvest coalbed methane and turn it into natural gas.
"If I'm sitting in your shoes, really what does it all boil down to?" Agardy said at a recent council meeting. "When we're done that equipment stays here. You now have the ability to power yourselves for the next 300 years. If you look at what happened before, you're left with an empty hole and a lot of empty promises."
Tenakhongva said he's considering the idea, and the tribe is vetting the companies involved. The Hopi Tribe is not willing to be a guinea pig. They've been burned before by the federal government, the Navajo and others. But the idea of using coal to regenerate clean energy for the tribe and market the rest of the power is too good to pass up.
"As an optimistic person like in Hopi values the sun will come up tomorrow," Tenakhongva said. "We will continue to live but maybe not in the comforts we have had the last 40 years. We're going to have to make major adjustments in our lifestyles."
He knows many people have left the reservation and many more will probably leave. But Tenakhongva said he's not going anywhere. He's got two years left of his term. And he plans to find a solution before that time is up.