Lack of regional water and sewer systems draws federal interest
In the Bering Strait region there are five villages, which remain unconnected to running water and sewer services. They are Stebbins, Teller, Wales, Diomede and Shishmaref. This brought a high-level group of officials from the Indian Health Service to the region to see first hand what the situation looks like. The IHS group included Rear Admiral Michael Weahkee, Director of the IHS, and several other IHS officials from Washington, D.C. The delegation toured public health resources including sanitation facilities, landfills, and washeterias in Wales and Shishmaref. They were accompanied by senior staffers from Norton Sound Health Corporation, which in partnership with Kawerak is helping to ensure that sanitation shortcomings are recognized by the IHS.
“They had a community meeting,” said Shishmaref Mayor Karla Nayokpuk. “It was a meet and greet. But our vice mayor was the one who went on tour with them.”
When reached by phone, Vice Mayor Fred Eningowuk was bailing out his boat after persistent rain had filled it. “I don’t think they were surprised,” said Ningeulook. “I think they kind of knew what we’re living with. I told them we’re still living like in a third world country.”
“They were interested in how we collect our water,” he said. “We don’t have any fresh water. It’s what the snow fence collects over the winter with the pond that’s lined. I told those guys ‘If you get the opportunity use a honey bucket from any one of these homes. And see what you people in the Lower 48 are taking for granted.’ They can just flush a toilet or get water out of the faucet and don’t have to worry about anything. I really wanted one of them to utilize the honey buckets that the home owners utilize.”
The town’s water is collected in a lined pond from snow melts that fills the pond. The water is then pumped into a 1.3 million gallon tank. It is filtered before it gets to the tank. “But the majority of the community does not use that water for drinking,” said Ningeulook. “We’d rather use rainwater or ice water. We prefer our traditional way of getting water. We’ve been doing that all our lives. We’re not used to the chlorine and what-not.”
Shishmaref’s washeteria is currently being renovated. The Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium doesn’t have the money to upgrade the water catchment, which needs a new liner and a new transfer line. “In Shishmaref we live a very strong subsistence way of life,” said Ningeulook. “We live off the land. We can’t live 100 percent off the store.”
The communities of Diomede, Shishmaref and Wales are on the Environmental Protection Agency’s EET list of water systems out of compliance with federal regulations for arsenic, nitrates, uranium, and THMs (trihalomethane compounds.) The levels are over what EPA has deemed to be safe for humans to drink in the long-term. Diomede’s water source is slated for improvement but first $50,000 must be raised. Without that funding the project will be skipped over.
“They were awed. My impression was they couldn’t believe what we were telling them. This is 2019, United States of America,” Wales Mayor Frank Oxereok said, describing how the Washington D.C. IHS people reacted to the conditions in Wales. He accompanied the group as they toured the village. “We welcomed that IHS come up to Wales just to view how our health system is in our city,” said Oxereok. “We had the three entities, corporation, city and IRA meet with them and then we discussed what our health situation is. Fortunately we’re getting a new clinic. But the main thing is we don’t have water and sewer yet. And I explained to them that I’m second generation advocating for water and sewer. So we showed the clinic, took them to the washeteria. The washeteria is real important because that’s where the community goes to wash their clothes. We don’t have running water. We have a big tank there. We don’t have dryers. We got the dryers and we didn’t know this when we got them but we had to send for somebody from the manufacturer to reprogram them. But we can’t afford that. So we just do without the dryers. We have a washer and two showers.” The washeteria was built back in the 1970s and Oxereok said it can barely keep up with the demand as it serves a population of about 170 people. “We’re pretty much guaranteed a new washeteria this next summer,” said Oxereok. “Village Safe Water is going to build it. The system in the old building is so old they had trouble finding pumps for it. We service the school, and the clinic, and teachers’ housing. They’re the only ones who have running water. It’s because Bering Straits School District could afford it. But for everybody else it’s just too much.”
“Water is treated,” he continued. “We’re down to three feet in the tank so we’re going to have to pump water. Then it will be good for the winter and good until next spring. It’s treated here. But the majority of the community does not use that water. Only for showers and washing because they have to pay a quarter a gallon. There’s free water on the north and south side of the village. We test it, nobody gets sick. It’s always good. It’s not polluted.”
“For sewer we have a honey bucket haul system. We stage bins throughout the community and that’s where the people dump their honey buckets. The city provides the service. We hire three guys who pick up the bins and haul them out to the honey bucket lagoon.”
A second delegation to visit Bering Strait villages made the trip on Friday, August 16. Senator Lisa Murkowski and her group went to Teller, Brevig Mission and Wales. Asked what she got out of the trip the next day she made a clear statement. “Visits by those from the Outside have come to parts of Alaska and realized that there are Alaskans, that these are Americans that are living in third world countries when it comes to sanitation and health safety issues. This generates a response that hopefully we’ll see pay forward. We saw this a couple months ago when I brought the U.S. Attorney General up to look at public safety issues. We took him out to a small village outside Bethel that had no law enforcement. He was shocked. He went back to Washington. Thirty days later announces that they’re declaring a public state of emergency as it relates to public health safety and is delivering $6 million, $10 million to be coming, so everything that we can do to continue to educate those who are in a position to make these policy changes. As a lawmaker, as an advocate for Alaska, we work hard to share everyday to share the stories, to advocate for the funding, but as we know the costs here are so high it can literally take every dollar for water and waste water projects. So getting those dollars up in the budget having the support from the administration is necessary. But as we also hear it’s clearing out some of the regulatory hurdles. So we’ll have an opportunity to build on that when we have the administrator of the EPA with us this next week. So every visit, every learning opportunity, is going to get us a little bit further ahead.”
August visits to Alaska by officials from Washington D.C. are often explained as a way to escape the suffocating late summer heat and humidity of the nation’s capital. But the right people to make changes have seen the water and sewer conditions of these villages close up and once again there is hope that change will come.
This post reflects a correction from an earlier version that erroneously identified the vice mayor of Shishmaref as Fred Ningeulook, when indeed it is Fred Eningowuk.