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Rural Alaska

New sanitation system tested in Arctic village of Kivalina

  • Author: Scott Jensen
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published September 7, 2015

?KIVALINA - The Arctic Alaska village of Kivalina has recently found itself in the news following a visit to the state from President Barack Obama -- who used the community as an example of the impacts of climate change during a speech in Kotzebue last week -- as well as talk of a new road and a new school, and even the 'R' word: relocation.

But none of those things are the primary concern for Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium Engineering Services Director John Warren. During his many visits in the last decade to the small village on the edge of the Chukchi Sea, Warren wasn't thinking about politics, only health. And in that regard, there was no denying a problem existed.

"We just simply couldn't look the other way," Warren said. "They had no good place to dispose of their human waste."

There is no running water in the village, which is located on a barrier island between the Chukchi and a lagoon. Residents must carry and store their water in containers. Because there's no sewer system, the common practice is to affix a toilet seat to a 5-gallon bucket, line it with a plastic bag, put it in a closet, and call it a bathroom.

"There's the honey bucket," Reppi Swan said last week, pointing toward a faux-marble box and a toilet seat with black plastic peeking out from underneath. "Five-gallon bucket. When it gets full, take it out to dump like usual."

"Sometimes their waste bags wouldn't get picked up over the winter and they'd get buried in snow and freeze," Warren said. During the spring, thawing bags can break and contaminate puddles where children play. Warren said there were reports of waste containers not being properly secured in the dump. The smell attracted animals, which made quick work of the flimsy plastic and spread the waste around.

Back inside the small houses where several generations often live together, Warren reported the same wash basins were used by multiple family members, and many would dip unclean hands into the fresh water barrels for drinking, increasing risk of contamination.

And in the Arctic, windows aren't typically built into bathrooms.

"Ventilation is an issue," Warren said. "Essentially, you have a bucket full of poop in a closed-up room." That can lead to respiratory problems.

After a series of studies in the years leading up to 2010, ANTHC chose Kivalina as the best candidate village in Northwest Alaska to test a pilot program aimed at improving sanitation in the community.

Warren and his team decided on three areas that would have the greatest impact on health -- ensuring a clean water supply, good hand-washing habits and the proper handling of human waste. They believed positive results could be achieved with a simple system that uses very little water. Nothing like the system they needed existed, so ANTHC -- along with the Cold Climate Housing Research Center -- designed, built and tested a system in Alaska.

"I don't think anything like this has been done anywhere in the world," said Warren.

ANTHC also came up with a title for the system: "Home Based Sanitation Solution." It isn't a great marketing catchphrase.

"We need to come up with a snappy name," admitted Warren, but it's the work that matters.

The major components of the system include a 100-gallon tank inside the bathroom that holds fresh potable water draining to a faucet and sink. The gravity-based system delivers a water-conserving flow of .3 gallons a minute -- the typical bathroom sink flows at about 1.5 gallons a minute. Gray water from the sink flows and mixes with liquid human waste coming from a non-flush urinal. The two flow into a holding tank upon which the toilet sits.

This is a "separating toilet," so called because it separates solid and liquid waste. Urine from the toilet joins the other liquid waste in the holding tank. That liquid is filtered and eventually flows outside to a leach field 5 feet underground. Solid waste still goes into the honeybucket. The system draws out moisture and odor using a constant fan venting outside. By the time the bucket is full, most of the waste is dried and ready to be dumped or burned.

The installation of 10 units was completed in late August in 10 different Kivalina homes. The system is portable and can be relocated as needed. At the cost of $32,000 apiece, plus funds for continuing the study on the system over the next year, ANTHC put up $250,000 from its own budget. The Indian Health Service chipped in another $225,000.

"If we see this is improving life and health and if the homeowners like it, we'll go after more money," said Warren. There is hope that the system will work for all of Kivalina's homes, and in other rural Alaska communities that lack sewer systems.

After all, Warren asked, "After 40 years, can we not do better than a bucket and a plastic bag?"

Update, Sept. 11: Based on questions from readers about the cost of the program, here's some additional information:

According to Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, itemized costs of the $32,000 per unit "Home Based Sanitation Solution" breaks down like this: 54 percent materials and freight, 35 percent labor and 11 percent for travel, archeologist and expenses. ANTHC Engineering Services Director John Warren reported the archaeology was expensive "due to the presence of burials all over the island." Warren also indicated it is important to understand included in this design is a water treatment system, a rain catchment system and an underground disposal system.

ANTHC Public Relations Director Michelle Weston suggests in an email the project is tailored to Kivalina - a remote village in the Alaska Arctic. "The system was not designed based on other systems. We are unaware of any other systems in Alaska similar to this," Weston wrote. "Water supply and wastewater disposal options differ by community in rural Alaska; and what is a solution in one community maybe different than the conditions and solution for the next." She continued, "The Kivalina pilot project involves a rain catchment and waste disposal system, design, labor, installation and transportation of materials to the Chukchi Sea barrier island located 81 miles northwest of Kotzebue."

With the exception of the leach field, the system is built to be moveable when the village relocates. There is no estimate on the cost per unit if the remaining pilot program study and testing over the next year in Kivalina leads to success and more units are ordered. Weston also answered the question of taxpayer money used for the project. The $225,000 from the Indian Health Service are federal funds. This kind of pilot program is consistent with ANTHC and IHS missions. Weston wrote, "Improving sanitation directly improves the health of families, which can translate into less healthcare costs in the future."

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