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Rural Alaska

‘Unserviced’: Why some Western Alaska villages lack basic sanitation infrastructure

  • Author: JoJo Phillips, KNOM News
  • Updated: May 20
  • Published May 19

St. Michael’s water tank is showing its age in 2020. (Photo by JoJo Phillips/KNOM)

This article originally appeared at KNOM.org and is republished here with permission.

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NOME -- Some communities in Western Alaska rely on crumbling infrastructure to meet their daily sanitation needs. Others depend on untrained water operators.

Currently, the villages of Wales, Shishmaref, Diomede, Stebbins and Teller are considered “unserviced” — meaning they lack access to residential water and sewage.

In Wales, the fight for water and sewer spans generations.

Frank Oxereok Jr. is mayor of the relatively small coastal community. His father, Frank Oxereok Sr., also served in local politics. He instilled in his son the importance of sacrifice from a young age.

“This is what my father and my brothers taught me,” Oxereok said. “Ever since I was younger, our Elders used to say, ‘You have to take care of your children and teach them.’ At the time we never thought about it, but now, at this age, these things come back to me every time I think about community.”

Oxereok wants his grandkids to be able to turn on the faucet and wash their hands before sitting down for dinner. He wants his children to pour themselves a glass of water when they are thirsty.

Although the community’s school and clinic have running water, Oxereok said villagers must rely on natural sources for residential needs.

“We use two different types of water: We use snow water for washing, and we use water from the north and south creek for drinking,” he said.

Over the years, the Wales mayor has learned to pick his battles. Right now he is focused on rebuilding Wales’ 50-year-old washeteria, which is run by the city for community use. It has two working showers for approximately 200 people.

Construction on a new facility is slated to begin in July, but the road to the ribbon-cutting ceremony has been a winding one. Broken promises and poorly-organized coalitions have hardened the mayor’s optimism.

Following in his father’s footsteps, Oxereok has come to realize a certain financial reality.

“I think after he left, I kind of stepped in his shoes,” he said. “And the main thing always comes down to — what I hear more than anything else — is cost. Money.”

Understanding where and when to apply for grants can be the difference between a working septic system and an unserviced community. However, for local governments and tribal entities throughout Western Alaska, the source of funding for large-scale water and sewer projects has long been a subject of confusion and controversy.

Take Wales, where some residents wonder if federal grants are handed out alphabetically.

“Wales is always down in the barrel, so to speak,” Oxereok said. “Like my uncle used to say: ‘Down at the bottom of the barrel.’”

Wales, Alaska, and its nearby countryside and seascape. (Photo by Mitch Borden, KNOM)

The major sources of funding for sanitation in the Bering Strait region are split between federal and state agencies. At the federal level, the Indian Health Service (IHS), Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Agriculture have individually appropriated congressional funds to be distributed to Western Alaska.

Those three agencies in turn work with state and local entities, such as the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. There’s also Village Safe Water, a subsidiary of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, and the state Department of Transportation and Public Facilities’ Capital Improvement Program, whose projects are selected by the governor.

Essentially, there is a shared pot of money for the region’s communities. Each year, communities in the Bering Strait region must navigate a labyrinth of bureaucratic red tape in the hopes of ladling from that pot.

Some communities get lost along the way.

According to the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, IHS is tasked with improving public health and providing access to sanitation facilities for communities’ Alaska Native populations. To this end, IHS compiles an annual list of communities suffering from sanitation deficiencies: the Sanitation Deficiencies System manual.

“Each project that was in that system has a deficiency level. The purpose of collecting all of that information is to be able to, one, report to Congress what the needs are,” said David Beveridge, the senior director for ANTHC’s Division of Environmental Health and Engineering.

Beveridge said projects are ranked by priority at five different “deficiency levels.”

“Projects in Alaska range from a DL1, which might be just routine replacements, might be painting a water tank or replacing a valve. A DL5 project means a house is without water or sewer. Those are the highest-level projects,” he said.

According to the most recent SDS cycle, the villages of Wales, Stebbins, Teller, Shishmaref and Diomede are all categorized as “Deficiency Level 5” by the IHS. The SDS manual’s priority system awards projects a total score out of 100.

“So when the funding is received by the Indian Health Service, they go down that list of priority projects and fund them in priority order,” Beveridge said.

Other factors include a “Best Practice” score, adopted from the state of Alaska, which Beveridge said accounts for more than 15% of a project’s total score.

In theory, the communities that need the funds most are the first to get them, according to IHS materials. The SDS manual was devised to create a federal record of where those communities are.

Nonetheless, Alaska Native villages have struggled in recent years to get projects funded, despite clear risks to public health.

Megan Alvanna Stimpfle is the self-governance liaison for the Norton Sound Health Corp. She noticed a number of projects in the region weren’t receiving IHS funding.

“Essentially what (the IHS) did last year … they said, ‘We’re only going to serve Native homes. If there are other structures in a community that are not Native homes, you, Tribe, are going to have to find a match for those structures,’” she said.

As stated in the IHCIA, the responsibility of the Indian Health Service is to a community’s Native population. However, by requiring matching funds for structures such as schools, teachers’ homes, tribal offices and post offices, the IHS is placing basic sanitary needs for whole communities out of financial reach.

As Alvanna Stimpfle explained, if a community can’t find the money, “you don’t get the whole funds, (and) you don’t get the whole grants.”

In a congressional hearing this past December, U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, articulated her displeasure with how the federal agency had changed its model.

“There have been interpretations more recently though the IHS that are perhaps more stringent as to how those rules apply to non-Indian community,” she said at the hearing, “requiring IHS to then pay the pro rata contribution for whole projects, which then make it absolutely impossible, infeasible, to move forward.”

For example, in 2018, Kotzebue was forced to find tens of thousands of dollars in matching funds for a “Deficiency Level 5” sanitation project. They came up short and missed the entire funding cycle. The washeteria project in Wales has struggled with ineligible costs as well.

Speaking to KNOM last fall, Murkowski was more blunt about her reaction to IHS policy on what constituted a “Native community.”

“I think it just boggles the mind to think that this is what we’re dealing with,” she said. “It is a challenge. This is yet one more challenge. We’ll get beyond this one too.”

The Yup'ik village of Stebbins on the Norton Sound coast in Western Alaska on Wednesday, June 26, 2019. (Bill Roth / ADN)

Missing out on a funding cycle means losing an entire year of planning and preparing. The same funds may not be available the next funding cycle, which could result in further setbacks.

This is to say the new interpretations have cost communities a precious resource: time.

On top of that, the SDS model presents other challenges. The “Best Practice” score Beveridge mentioned is an amalgamation of technical, managerial and financial factors. Beveridge is clear to note a project’s score will never preclude it from funding, but the score can have a significant impact on where a community ends up overall.

One example, Beveridge explained, is whether water and sewer operators pass the state’s certification test.

“The operator certification system is not very favorable for rural Alaska,” he said. “There’s about a 7% pass rate on the test right now across the state.”

One potential reason for that low pass rate: Access to certification training is extremely limited in the Bering Strait region.

Racheal Lee, the director of the Office of Environmental Health at Norton Sound Health Corp., organizes training sessions for water operators annually. Lee told KNOM last year there aren’t enough operators in the region.

“We get about $19,000 from the Indian Health Service each year for the training program,” she said.

When asked if that was an adequate amount of funding, Lee replied: “No, absolutely not.”

It’s important to note that IHS is not responsible for all water and sewer funding in the region. According to ANTHC, over half of the money comes from the EPA, USDA’s Rural Development program and matching funds from the state’s Capital Improvement Program.

There’s just one catch: CIP uses the same “Best Practice” score included in the SDS, and the EPA won’t release any funds to a community without a certified water operator.

Take the community of Diomede, sitting just 30 miles west of the Seward Peninsula on Little Diomede Island. The IHS initially appropriated the necessary funds for Diomede to have a new water treatment plant.

However, there was a problem.

“There was an ineligible cost portion of $50,000,” Alvanna Stimpfle said. “I think ultimately (NSHC) paid to secure the funding, but the EPA said they wouldn’t fund it because there is no certified operator in Diomede.”

For years, Diomede has grappled with system failures and, in some instances, tests of Diomede’s drinking water have found arsenic in quantities above the legal limit.

The community of Diomede from the runway. (Photo by Matty Guiffre, KNOM file)

Between the IHS narrowing the definition of a Native community, the SDS’ reliance on the “Best Practice” score and the EPA’s regulatory restrictions, the pot of money available to Western Alaska has grown smaller.

The region’s response? In the past, water and sewer advocates have traveled to Washington, D.C., to make their case. Last year they decided to bring D.C. north to Alaska.

Norton Sound Health Corp. hosted Indian Health Service officials twice last summer, including an August trip from Rear Adm. Michael Weahkee, then the acting IHS director.

Weahkee, a member of the Zuni Tribe, toured sanitation facilities in Wales, St. Michael and Shishmaref. He met with city and tribal officials and, as Alvanna Stimpfle told KNOM, regional leadership were not afraid to speak their minds.

Alice Fitka, the tribal president for the Native Village of St. Michael, even invited the officials into her own home.

Months later, on a weekend in late February, CNN was blaring on the radio in Fitka’s kitchen. Forlorn Christmas ornaments were hanging in the eaves, possibly waiting out the thaw. Her daughter played on the tiled floor.

On the table in front of her sat three red jugs. They’re for drinking water.

“This is how we gather our water, pack our water. We use these,” she said. “Every single day we have to fill them. We use lots of water.”

Fitka, along with half of her community of about 400 residents, had been without running water since the end of December. She wanted to show KNOM what she showed Weahkee.

“After the meeting, I brought about three or four (IHS officials) to individual homes and showed them the sump that we have so much trouble with,” she said. “Those tiny little tanks — we call them sumps — and they’re placed in the home, and to me that’s very unsanitary. Waste is going through there.”

When Fitka’s water system is working, the sump acts as a basic filtration device. Water, oil and general filth collects in the sump. The filth is then pumped outside of the house.

In Fitka’s experience, the little containers back up easily and cause a number of problems.

“A lot of us are having a problem, because when (the sump) fills up, it’s too small. It can’t keep up. It starts smelling, and it really smells like gas. It’s not gas, but it’s coming from that sump in our house,” she said.

Water system above ground in the village of St. Michael on the Norton Sound in Western Alaska on Thursday, June 27, 2019. (Bill Roth / ADN)

St. Michael’s water and sewer system is almost two decades old, according to village grant writer Virginia Washington. Fitka wishes her community had more support from state and federal entities to upgrade their infrastructure.

“It’s hard to tell if they’ll ever be able to meet our needs of wanting a good, operational system,” she said. “Look at the kind of support we’re getting right now. We’re not getting 100% support of getting the system fixed for our village. They come and Band-Aid — just do a Band-Aid job.

“I’m sorry if I sound negative or upset or disappointed, but it’s what we feel has been happening. Would they do that kind of a Band-Aid job in a city? I don’t think so.”

Fitka said she wouldn’t have running water again until the end of spring.

Following his visit to St. Michael back in August, Weahkee and his staff spent the afternoon in the sunlit hallways of the hospital in Nome. The King Island Dancers and Drummers performed for the visitors.

After they played, KNOM asked Weahkee what he would do after seeing the unserviced communities firsthand.

“I can take these stories back east with me when I’m in a hearing with Sen. Murkowski and her committee, to tell them what I saw and what I heard directly,” he said. “And that’s how we get the money necessary within the IHS budget to address these challenges.”

At his official confirmation hearing this past December, a time when temperatures in St. Michael hit 60 degrees below zero, Weahkee had the opportunity to make good on his word.

Addressing a panel of congressional leaders that included Murkowski, Weahkee used his time to speak directly about the Bering Strait region.

“We know that in personal visits I’ve had the opportunity to make to Shishmaref and Wales, I’ve had the opportunity to see firsthand the limited facilities, the solid waste concerns,” he said. “You definitely have my commitment to continue scanning the landscape for innovative solutions and to best use the Indian Health Service’s sources throughout Indian Country.”

When asked to respond to Weahkee’s remarks, Fitka took the opportunity to extend another invitation to the federal government.

“Come to our village and see it for yourself. Then you’ll understand what we’re going through,” she said. “You need to come to our community. Meet with the right people. Go to the homes that have problems with their water and sewer system. Then you’ll understand and maybe you’ll do something to make a change in helping us.”

Frank Oxereok Jr., the mayor of Wales, believes Weahkee’s in-person visit and his remarks show progress.

“They saw firsthand where we live and how we live,” he said.

However, Oxereok is staying focused on Wale’s new washeteria. He won’t be celebrating until the last brick is laid.

“I’m still working with Village Safe Water and with the state, and they would send me paperwork. They’d say, ‘Hey Frank, you gotta sign this paper. This is the final paperwork you’ll have to sign.’ That was a month ago. Two weeks ago, they send me another one. It’s ongoing,” he said. “I’m starting to think I’ll be the happiest man when we cut the ribbon for that facility.”

A similar project in the unserviced community of Shishmaref is also scheduled for 2020, according to NSHC’s SDS database. Teller has applied for funding to rehabilitate its washeteria during the upcoming cycle. At the earliest, construction would begin in 2021.

After breezing through his Senate confirmation hearing on Dec. 11, the Senate unanimously confirmed Weahkee as IHS director in April. His confirmation had been delayed due to another health crisis — the coronavirus pandemic.

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