BETHEL — Across rural Alaska, cars, trucks and four-wheelers kick up clouds of road dust, a plague that coats tundra berries and fish racks, irritates eyes and throats, and, evidence suggests, worsens asthma and other chronic breathing conditions.
People stay indoors, wear masks or suffer through it. Dust can be so thick that it's like driving in fog. Windshields get coated. Windows stay shut, even on warm days. Some residents of boardwalk villages that don't have big dust problems say they avoid traveling to Bethel, a town with mainly gravel and dirt streets, when the weather is dry and windy.
But one woman in Bethel is trying a simple, inexpensive fix. Jody Drew, a relative newcomer to the Southwest Alaska hub, is handing out 15 mph speed limit signs for people to post wherever they choose, even if the legal speed limit is higher. The signs, made of plastic, are showing up all over town. In some areas, traffic is slowing.
Slowing down is a proven way of reducing dust and its airborne misery, state environmental and transportation officials say.
Years back, road workers in some areas spread recycled motor oil until it was confirmed to be an environmental hazard. Salt compounds, synthetic fluids and plain water still are used now to hold down the dust but they typically don't last and can create other problems.
Around the state, environmental officials and civil engineers have been studying the problem for years. Yet the choke of dust continues. An affordable solution has been elusive.
"The one complaint we've heard pretty much all across the state is that road dust is becoming more and more of a nuisance," said Barbara Trost, who heads air quality monitoring for the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.
For those with lung problems, environmental health officials say, dust is more than an irritant. It can worsen breathing issues and damage lung tissue. Children and the elderly are particularly vulnerable.
Dust buster at work
In Bethel, Drew, the 15 mph sign-maker, is the newest dust buster. She fell in love with the subtle beauty of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta years ago and moved to Bethel in 2014. A retired teacher and principal from Seattle, Drew, 58, is an assistant professor at the Kuskokwim campus of University of Alaska Fairbanks.
And she lives on a state-owned road that is busy, rutted — and dusty. Now she's the nucleus of a dust-control effort taking off without any government help or interference. The city is allowing the 15 mph signs to pop up all over town.
This summer, Drew spotted a 30-second, state-sponsored video on Facebook about the health hazards of dust and benefits of slowing down. She remembers another Bethel resident mentioning a study that said dust doesn't kick up if drivers go just 15 mph.
"Over 15 mph, we make clouds," Drew said. "Fifteen is no dust."
State materials suggest residential speed limits of 10 mph to 20 mph to keep dust down. One older study referenced by the state Department of Environmental Conservation found that reducing speeds from 40 mph to 20 mph cut dust by 65 percent. Pervasive four-wheelers, with aggressive tires, kick up extra dust.
Most residential streets in Bethel have 25 mph speed limits, said city council member Leif Albertson. There are about 30 miles of city roads in Bethel, of which just over 1 mile is paved, according to the city. The state owns the main paved road, Chief Eddie Hoffman Highway, which is dusty despite the asphalt, and several other roads.
Drew settled on 15 mph for neighborhoods but didn't seek government permission. She is trying to use public pressure to slow down traffic. She had hundreds of speed limit signs plus T-shirts and bumper stickers printed. They are both in English and Yup'ik: "15 mph-aaq cipteksaunaku," for "don't go faster than 15 mph." At Bethel's Fourth of July celebration, she started handing out her materials. So far, she's spent under $2,000 but doesn't like to talk about that part.
"Dust Blows: Let's Keep It Down," the fluorescent yellow T-shirts say.
Drew has already given away more than 240 signs.
Someone with asthma: ‘Yeah!’
"Yeah!" was Napaskiak resident Tim Evon's reaction to the signs during a recent trip to Bethel visiting family. Evon has asthma. Breathing dusty air is "like someone put a towel or a hand over your mouth," he said.
"When we see that it is very, very dry and windy, we don't come here," said his wife, Gloria Williams-Evon. Napaskiak has boardwalks, not roads, so it isn't that dusty.
Albertson, the council member, said he's a fan of Drew's effort.
"I think it's great that citizens in Bethel are taking the initiative," said Albertson, who has two young children and teaches workshops about air quality. "It's basically neighbor asking neighbor to please drive slowly here."
Dust brings complaints to DEC
Bethel is among dozens of rural Alaska communities that have complained to state officials about dusty roads, said Molly Birnbaum, with the Department of Environmental Conservation's air quality division.
"Wind has been blowing dust off glaciers and dry river beds for generations," the DEC says in a health brochure.
In a 2010 state survey, more than 50 Alaska communities reported that residents were "highly affected by dust." Eye irritation, asthma, coughing, bronchitis, emphysema and chest tightening were problems in many of the communities.
It became a big problem in rural Alaska after new housing and gravel roads were built in the 1980s, said a 2003 medical study led by Anchorage-based researchers with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Sand bars in rivers and sand pads for buildings also are sources, the researchers reported.
Dust exposure was believed to be a significant contributor to chronic respiratory illness of young children in Western Alaska, researchers were told.
Nearly everyone told researchers the dust was terrible and getting worse. "You'd think you were in the Sahara Desert," the study said. One elder said people could no longer cut and dry fish where they used to.
State recommends slowing down
Of the state's top 10 ways to control road dust, slowing down and reducing traffic are recommended as inexpensive options. Kotzebue, for instance, doesn't allow kids under age 14 to ride four-wheelers or snowmachines around town unless an adult is on the same machine. That improves safety and, with fewer kids wheeling around town, reduces dust. People can walk or bike for short trips, DEC says.
The state also highlights improved road design. Good drainage reduces the likelihood of potholes and keeps roads more stable and less dusty. Gravel helps keep dust down, as does paving.
But even paving isn't a sure fix. In Bethel, on paved, state-owned Chief Eddie Hoffman Highway, "the dust is so thick you can't see through it," Bethel city manager Peter Williams said.
All city roads that intersect with the state highway are dirt or gravel, said Mike Coffey of the state Department of Transportation, the former longtime chief of statewide maintenance and operations.
"This makes for an endless supply of material being deposited on the roadway causing dust issues," he said in an email. State crews use a sweeper rig with a 5-foot powered brush on the bike path along one stretch of the highway a couple of times a year. But they are stretched thin with airport maintenance duties and can't keep up, he said.
DEC offers other ideas. Fences and rows of shrubs can make a difference in slowing wind, the state says. Planting grass or vegetation on what's now exposed ground around offices and houses helps too, but that might not be easy to maintain in Bush Alaska.
That leaves putting a substance on top of the dust to bind fine particles together and hold everything down.
State offers guidance but lacks money
The state mainly offers guidance. It is up to villages to figure out how to pay for dust control long term, DEC's Birnbaum said.
The Department of Transportation produced a dust-control field guide and designed a portable sprayer. University researchers created a portable air monitor.
In Interior's Fort Yukon, where the temperature gets into the 90s in the summer, fine silt just hangs in the air and residents grow desperate for relief.
City Manager Andrew Firmin said walking isn't a good option. "You would just be caked with dust when you get home."
A few years back, Fort Yukon tested out recycled vegetable oil. It left a sticky residue and attracted bears.
Commercial dust-control products take expertise to apply correctly and to maintain, he said. A rookie operator may grade the road in a way that blades the treatment right off. Watering the road may wash away the product. In Ruby, heavy rains came right after a test product was applied, diluting its effect.
In Fort Yukon last year, a contractor dug up the main road and all the dust control product along with it.
"If it doesn't get replaced, there it is. And it was just a waste of money," Firmin said.
Now the city and the local tribal organization have gone back to the simplest method: watering the streets. The city provides a truck and the tribe a driver who waters roads Monday through Friday.
The commercial products that work best with fewest negative effects tend to be expensive, synthetic fluids, said David Barnes, a UAF professor of civil and environmental engineering who has studied management of rural road and airstrip dust for more than a decade.
Think of dust like beach sand, Barnes said. When sand dries out, it blows all around. Add water to build a sand castle, and the grains bind together and stay in place. But soon the water evaporates.
Synthetic fluids hold dust particles together for a time and don't evaporate, he said.
Products tested in villages
St. Marys, one of the rural communities picked for the dust control study several years back, tried out a number of products.
"The really expensive ones worked really good. The other ones didn't work so well and had to be reapplied and reapplied," said Andy Journey, the utilities director there.
More recently, the community experimented with repurposed fryer oil provided through the village corporation, but it had a bad smell, he said.
Some products required multiple steps to bind correctly, a lot of manpower for a small village, Journey said.
"So we've just been watering the roads," he said. "It's the most cost-effective, easiest thing to do, that we've found."
The UAF-led research determined that correctly applied products would last about a year on a rural road, or two years on a gravel runway, he said.
In the Yukon River village of Nunam Iqua, the synthetic product worked so well on the runway that skid marks were visible, Coffey of DOT said.
"It's a spectacular thing to see," he said.
Salts are an option — sometimes
Salt products that draw moisture from the air to bind dust are cheaper. They also are corrosive and can't be used on dusty runways. Villages also don't like the way salty dust coats drying fish and wild plants.
Bigger communities rely on salts, which, as an added benefit, can also be used to melt ice. The city of Anchorage uses magnesium chloride. The state applies calcium chloride to the Dalton Highway at a cost of about $10,000 a mile, a fraction of what it spends for synthetic fluids on rural runways. Bethel bought 60 tons of calcium chloride for $50,000 to use this summer.
Bethel tries to water streets too. But its main truck is broken. Its second vehicle has a wide spray zone that wets yards and personal property along with the street, Williams said.
The city and state now are trying to get a better understanding of Bethel's dust problem. DEC is barging over a dust monitor. Albertson arranged for it to be parked on city property near the center of town. It's a state project but Albertson, eager for hard data, said he'll keep an eye it.
In the meantime, Drew keeps giving away her signs.
"It's working," she said. "A four-wheeler just went by and no dust."