While almost everyone would agree that garbage disposal is a huge issue for the Navajo Nation, it hasn’t received much besides the words of the tribal government.
The Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency has been overdue for years on illegal dumping complaints, and there is no comprehensive waste management system on the Navajo Nation.
In 2016, under the leadership of Director Carl Smith, the Community Development Division abandoned its solid waste management program, which was supposed to support the chapters in their efforts to control the problem.
The following year, a bill introduced by Delegate Kee Allen Begay Jr. to implement DCD’s integrated solid waste management plan was never left out of the board.
Steadfast, two middle-aged women in neighboring chapters south of Gallup have stepped forward, taking the garbage problem – sometimes literally – into their own hands.
They created a co-operated transfer station and recycling center that received high marks for cleanliness and efficiency from users and federal inspectors.
Considering this to be a dumping ground, “this is one of the best facilities you can find,” boasted Roselyn John, Community Services Coordinator for the Chichiltah Chapter, thanking her attendants, Tim Hannah. and Derek Charley.
It seems to be true. Even on the blustery day the Times arrived for a tour, not a single foil box or burger wrap could be seen blowing around the Bááháálí-Chichiltah Regional Solid Waste Collection and Recycling Center, which is located exactly halfway between the Bááháálí and Chichiltah chapters on New Mexico State Route 602.
You couldn’t smell the trash, and the small office the two attendants worked in was sparkling.
The last inspector, Hannah said, told them he could usually spot a transfer station right from the litter at the fork, but that’s not the case here. He and Charley pride themselves on keeping it as clean as a junkyard can be.
How did this little miracle happen?
The station was basically wanted by John and his counterpart in neighboring Bááháálí, Chapter Director Gloria M. Skeet.
As Skeet says, the facility was first opened as a landfill run by the US Indian Health Service in 1975. It was closed and refilled three years later, then taken over by McKinley County as a transfer station (meaning that the waste is allowed to accumulate. for a certain time, then transferred to a landfill).
In 2005, the county withdrew from the garbage sector and a meeting was called between the county, the BIA and surrounding sections to find a next step.
Skeet had just been hired by the Bááhááli branch after spending 19 years in Minnesota, where no one had to think too much about garbage. She doesn’t remember exactly how, but at the end of the meeting, it was decided that the station would go to Bááháálí.
“I was told, ‘You are now full owner of this transfer station,’” Skeet recalls. “I thought, ‘Oh, my God, what are we going to do now?'”
Growing up in the area, she knew the importance of the landfill to the community and wondered what people would do with their trash if it closed.
“I couldn’t imagine stopping it,” she said.
She also knew that it was impossible for little Bááháálí, with less than 1,000 people at the time, to manage a transfer station on his own. She hired the neighboring chapters Chichiltah and Tsé Lichii to help her (Tsé Lichii then abandoned the collaboration).
“We didn’t know what we were doing,” admitted John. “None of us had ever had to deal with waste management before. But we were determined to learn.
They had some support. Delegates Charles Damon and Joe M. Lee invested much of their discretionary funding in the effort, Skeet recalled.
Arbin Mitchell, then head of the Community Development Division, provided advice and encouragement. McKinley County Commissioner Genevieve Jackson convinced the county to pay for staff training, since the county had essentially thrown the waste issue into the knees of the chapters.
Over the next four years, the three chapters developed a strategic plan, a business plan, a policy manual and obtained the certification of the chapter’s staff in waste management. Each chapter provided and paid for an attendant.
In 2009, the Bááháálí-Chichiltah Regional Solid Waste Collection Center (“Promoting Waste Disposal Practices to Benefit the Southern Gallup Region”) proudly opened its doors to a grateful public lined up in packed vans. of garbage bags.
The Red Rock regional landfill site in Thoreau, New Mexico agreed to accept the waste, as it did while McKinley County operated the station.
Perhaps the most unpleasant task of operating a transfer station is the biennial government-mandated “garbage check”, but Skeet and John are there for everyone.
One of the attendants randomly chooses 15 trash bags and the staff divides the trash and sorts it into categories such as food waste, paper, plastic, glass and diapers.
During the first audit, Skeet and John were shocked to find that 79% of what people were throwing away was recyclable.
“That’s when we decided to get into the recycling business,” Skeet said. “We just couldn’t, in good conscience, keep throwing all this stuff away.”
To encourage people to recycle, it’s free. All community members have to do is sort their items and bring them to the station.
Usually the station accepts corrugated cardboard, mixed paper, # 1 and # 2 plastic, and cans. But because of the pandemic, Red Rock is limiting what it accepts and it’s currently just cardboard and plastic.
They don’t accept aluminum cans because they don’t want to compete with Bááháálí Chapter, which collects soda cans and sells them to a metal processor to raise money for its popular intergenerational weaving classes.
Fees for the dump are kept low so people don’t resort to the many illegal dumps that dot the pygmy forest the canyon runs south of Gallup.
A trash bag costs $ 3.18 and a pickup charge (up to 15 bags) is $ 6.36.
If you buy a coupon ahead of time, you can empty five loads for $ 21.20 or six bags for $ 15.90 – it helps the little station keep its budget.
Of course, this amount does not start to operate the station.
“Solid waste is not a lucrative business,” Skeet said, shaking his head. “Ninety-five percent of landfills and transfer stations in the country are subsidized by a county, state or municipality.”
In this case, the tribe steps in (thanks especially to President Seth Damon, who is from Tse Lichii and has won the Pony Council over $ 57,000 in recent years), and New Mexico investment funds have been used to improve the road, fence, and office (including a flush toilet and emergency shower, which it did not previously have).
As a certified chapter, Bááháálí can apply for grants like the New Mexico Department of Tourism’s Clean and Beautiful Fund, which they hope to use for a series of special clean-up days around Earth Day.
They would also like to find funds to hire one or two college kids to do community outreach about the transfer station and what types of things it does and doesn’t accept (no dangerous chemicals; no bio-waste like insulin needles, for example). ).
Finally, they would like to have their own garbage truck.
But Skeet and John are just two people and they are starting to burn out.
“It’s a lot of work,” John said. “People have no idea how much work this is, and then we have our other chores in addition.”
What is the solution?
“We have to make this sustainable,” Skeet said. “The tribe must have a plan for solid waste.”
“And they have to fund it regularly from year to year,” added John. “Chapters should not be forced to kneel down begging those who we think could help us.”
Skeet noted that only 22 of the 110 chapters have any sort of solid waste disposal, and only two, along with Kayenta Township, offer recycling.
Ultimately, she said, the tribe must take responsibility for the problem, perhaps adding a one-cent sales tax to provide a sustainable source of funding.
“And it’s ridiculous that chapters as far apart as Chinle have to haul their trash to Thoreau,” she added. “We should have a certified, environmentally friendly landfill in the Navajo Nation – several of them.”
The DCD could also certify some employees as solid waste management trainers so people don’t have to travel to border towns to train … in fact, it could charge people out of the reservation to enter, suggested Skeet.
“It’s not a chapter-by-chapter affair,” she added. “It must be regionalized. Most chapters just aren’t big enough to be successful. “
In the meantime, however, little Bááháálí and even the smallest Chichiltah are moving forward. They can’t stop now; the community has become too dependent on its transfer station.
“When we closed for a while because of COVID,” Hannah recalls, “people found out where I live and just started throwing bags of trash when I walked out. “What could I do?” I just put it in my truck and took it to the station.