Tribe tries to control trash fires

Ute Mountain Utes dealing with traditional, environmental challenges

Quinton Jacket, center, leads a meeting on the landfill in Towaoc with Scott Clow, left, and Mike King, right. Enlargephoto

Sam Green/Cortez Journal

Quinton Jacket, center, leads a meeting on the landfill in Towaoc with Scott Clow, left, and Mike King, right.

Illegal dumping occurs in many rural communities, and often has a traditional history that does not jive with modern environmental laws.

The Ute Mountain reservation is not immune to the typical human behavior of ad-hoc community dumps, and the added habit of burning their belongings is part of their heritage.

But Ute leaders are trying to change that behavior of burning all garbage, and are embarking on a education campaign about the health hazards to the air, water and soil.

“Burning is part of cultural traditions,” said brownsfield coordinator Quinton Jacket. “But it has gone beyond the rite of burning belongings of those passed or for other personal reasons.”

At a public hearing last week in Towaoc, the tribe’s environmental specialists discussed the persistent problem of burning at an abandoned landfill and common dumping area located at the intersection of Sundance Road and the Farm and Ranch road.

“We’re seeing people burning just about everything,” said Scott Clow, director for the tribe’s environment department. “The hazard is that the incomplete combustion leaves chemicals in the ground that over time migrate to the nearby washes.”

Partially burned material from electronics leave toxic dioxins that have are not degraded enough to be safe, Clow explained. Regulated incineration facilities burn at 1,000 degrees and even the ash is disposed of in specialized containment areas.

Jacket has been surveying the community over the past few years to determine the reasoning behind the propensity for burning garbage.

“I’ll ask why? and they will say because they don’t want their personal information to be stolen, or because that is what has gone on there for so long,” he said. “It is an opportunity to let them know the toxins released are harmful to our land. Our people are breathing that air.”

The tribe is applying for a $200,000 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency to properly mitigate a 35-acre landfill located at the dumping site and tribal waste management transfer station. Closed in 1997, the old landfill needs a better soil cap and controlled drainage to prevent land and water contamination of nearby Cottonwood Wash and Navajo Wash, tributaries of the Mancos River.

“During rain bursts we are seeing trash flooding into Navajo Wash, and we want to prevent that,” Jacket said. “A stronger cap is needed so water does not percolate into the waste and contaminate groundwater and downstream areas.”

The regular deposits of biohazards in the washes get picked up during wind storms or evaporated into the atmosphere, explained Mike King, air quality specialist for the Ute Mountain tribe.

“Those particulates are breathed in and cause cardiovascular diseases and sickness,” King said.

The funding would allow for extensive soil sampling, a protective cap, and electronic resistivity surveys to find out the make-up of the landfill waste is, some of which has become exposed and needs removal. It was noted that a trained caretaker at the site would help with enforcement of regulations and education.

Once environmentally and structurally stable, the tribe plans to install solar panels at the site, which could provide electricity needs for the Farm and Ranch operation located nearby.

“It is good to get it cleaned up and managed better because of the toxins. A permanent solution there is good for our future,” said Priscilla Bancroft, superintendant for the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Towaoc. “Education is key so that our community knows the dangers of burning.”

Added resident Bonita Denetsosie, “I thank you for what you are doing. We grew up with burning our trash, but it is not the safest way to deal with it.”