Orange goo in Kivalina to be tested (8/6/11)

UNKNOWN: Residents are advised to boil their drinking water.

August 6, 2011 

The orange substance floats offshore of Kivalina in Northwest Alaska.


Leona Baldwin's husband saw it first, and she got on the marine radio to alert others in the remote village of Kivalina that a strange orange goo was floating on top of the town's harbor.

The news attracted all the townspeople, anxious to get a gander at the phenomenon that covered much of the harbor and then began washing ashore Wednesday.

The next day it rained, and residents found the orange matter floating on top of the rain buckets they use to collect drinking water.

By Friday, the orange substance in the lagoon had dissipated or washed out to sea, and what was left on ground had dried to a powdery substance.

The Coast Guard already has ruled out that the orange material, which people described as having a semi-solid feel to it, was human-made or a petroleum product.

That leaves algae as the best guess, said village administrator Janet Mitchell.

Samples of the orange matter were collected in canning jars and sent to a lab in Anchorage for analysis.

Until results are known, Kivalina's 374 residents will likely continue to wonder.

"Certainly at this point it's a mystery," said Emanuel Hignutt, a chemist with the state Department of Environmental Conservation lab in Anchorage.

Kivalina, an Inupiat Eskimo village, is located at the tip of an eight-mile barrier reef on Alaska's northwest coast, between the Chukchi Sea and Kivalina River to the north and the Wulik River to the south.

In 2009, Wainwright hunters discovered black mystery goo floating in the Chukchi that led to a wave of news headlines but later turned out to be marine algae, the state Department of Environmental Conservation found.

Villagers in Kivalina have never seen anything like the orange substance before, and elders have never heard any stories passed down from earlier generations about an orange-colored substance coming into town.

"This is the first for Kivalina, as far as I know," said 63-year-old Austin Swan, a city council member.

Portions of the samples will also be sent to the University of Alaska Fairbanks and to a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration lab in South Carolina for testing.

"There's a number of experts in the areas who can identify if it's an organic material, for example, and what species this is, or perhaps it's not an organic material, and we're going to determine that, as well," Hignutt said.

When the material bunched up in the lagoon, it created 10 foot-by-100 foot swaths of glimmering orange.

"When the wind came in, it narrowed them to a few feet wide. The color was a bright neon orange," said Frances Douglas, a member of the city council.

"It pretty much covered the south end of the lagoon in streaks," she said of the attraction, which drew many residents.

"Pretty much everybody was baffled," she said.

City personnel went to a pump house two miles away on the Wulik River, and found the material there, too. The village is also about 40 miles from the Red Dog zinc mine, but officials there assured the village the substance didn't come from them.

Since the substance was unknown, city officials cautioned residents to keep children away from the orange goo and for residents to boil their water before drinking it.

But Mitchell said water is another concern since they don't have much reserve in the city's two water tanks.

The tanks need to be filled this summer from the Wulik River to make it through the winter, but the city had to stop pumping last month before the goo showed up because of rain disturbances. Kivalina wasn't alone in reporting the strange orange substance last Wednesday.

Shannon Melton said she was boating on the Buckland River about 150 miles southeast of Kivalina, and the river was not its normal color. "It was orange-looking," she said.

She took the boat out again Thursday to go berry picking and said the river had returned to its normal color, but some of the creeks off the river still had the orange tinge to them.

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