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Rural Alaska

For one Western Alaska village, honey buckets are gradually going away

  • Author: Lisa Demer
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published March 21, 2015

HOOPER BAY -- On a February day with the temperature hovering around zero, with the wind howling and gusts so strong it's hard to stand, Walter Carl rides a four-wheeler to the town landfill carting frozen 5-gallon buckets of human waste.

The 18-year-old stomps on the outside of the buckets to loosen the plastic bags inside, then dumps them among a mess of bathroom waste and garbage on the edge of one of Alaska's largest villages.

They call it "throwing the honey bucket." In a home bustling with 15 family members, it's a frequent chore, Carl said.

It's how people have disposed of sewage here for decades. But now this basic element of human life is being redefined on the edge of the Bering Sea, in one of the country's harshest construction environments. Street by street and home by home, much of Hooper Bay slowly is being retooled into the modern era with running water and flush toilets, with sinks and showers and, in some homes, even washers and dryers.

"No more honey buckets for some people now. They don't even have to pack water anymore," said Patrick Hale, a Hooper Bay resident who has worked on the water and sewer project for almost two decades. He has moved up to foreman – one of the locals building the system for their own community. His family, with three kids still at home, isn't yet hooked up and his teens still help throw honey buckets and pack water home.

Community leaders embrace the project, built with state and federal money, as a way to combat serious health problems even as both the village and individual residents struggle to pay for its operation. A state office repeatedly flagged serious financial issues with the city-owned utility. To save the project, last year it was shifted to village corporation control.

Water and sewer has come in stages since the first well went in back in 1963 and the first washeteria more than 20 years later. The big push began in 2001.

Some residents struggle to pay the monthly $85 bill. Of 66 homes hooked up as of late February, 10 no longer are getting service – either for nonpayment or after deciding on their own to return to honey buckets, according to the village corporation. Others are months behind on their water bill.

Most getting running water for the first time in their life "say they cannot be without it," said William Naneng, general manager of Sea Lion Corp., Hooper Bay's village corporation and the new operator of the water and sewer system. It's like electricity, he said. They are trying hard to pay, he said.

Across the state, people in about 3,300 homes in rural villages still rely on honey buckets for toilets despite political promises to get rid of them and the spending of almost $2 billion since 1990. The number is dropping. More than one-third of those without running water are in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.

With 1,200 people, Hooper Bay has stood out as the biggest village in Alaska where a majority of people lacked running water, though that is changing fast, said Greg Magee, manager of the state's Village Safe Water program.

"It's the biggest project we have, and the most important right now," he said.

High rates of illness

Many in Hooper Bay have cell phones. People can pay for Internet or satellite TV. But many still don't have a flush toilet.

In homes without hookups, water is poured into a basin for hand-washing and used over and over by multiple family members. People shower at the community washeteria. At Hooper Bay School, younger children line up for weekly showers at the gym locker room.

High rates of skin and respiratory disease occur in villages that lack adequate running water, studies have shown. One of every three babies ends up hospitalized for a severe respiratory infection.

The problem of rural sanitation hasn't been ignored, but it is complex and expensive to build and maintain rural systems. State and federal governments have poured about $1.9 billion since 1990 into construction of water and sewer projects, reaching many of the bigger villages, according to the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

While three-fourths of rural village homes didn't have running water in 1980, the state estimates that percentage is now just 15 percent, although some systems are beginning to fail. The Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium manages about 60 percent of the water-system construction projects, DEC's Village Safe Water program the rest, Magee said.

But federal earmarks are gone and the state budget is in a tailspin. Water and sewer funding in Alaska is about half of what it was a decade ago. The state has issued a challenge for fresh ideas to try out in small villages where piped water would be too expensive or environmental conditions are too challenging.

For Hooper Bay, the timing is good. Almost all the money needed already is secured. After a two-year stall because of the city finances, the multiphase $51 million project resumed last year.

Crews work in stretches indoors and out to catch up and bring water to their friends, their neighbors and themselves. So far, 125 homes and rental units are hooked up and another 100 are scheduled to be added by 2017. Work halted in February but managers say it will restart soon.

People who live without running water are drained by constant chores of dumping out honey buckets, packing water and doing laundry at the washeteria, said Greg Bell, operations manager for the Hooper Bay health clinic. He sees the strain on his own employees, a feeling they cannot properly take care of their families.

"It affects your morale, your spirit, your overall mental health," Bell said.

Albert Green, another Hooper Bay resident who has worked on the project for 16 years, is in a new house and still is waiting for his hookup but is happy to be part of the transformation.

"It's a long time coming," he said.

Sipping from wells

In winter, there's an otherworldly aura to Hooper Bay, a moonscape of frozen tussocks and swirling snow, a landscape of tiny weathered homes overflowing with snowmachine parts, stacks of clothing and piles of boots, with interior clotheslines, cupboards with Pilot Bread and freezers of fish and birds, walrus and seal.

With the wind blowing at 20 to 30 mph on a February day, a small crew of Hooper Bay workers struggled to maneuver flexible water and sewer pipes into an inner casing surrounded by insulation and an exterior Arctic-grade pipe.

"We can manage," said Green, wearing a seal fur hat. "It's just the brutal cold when it's windy like this."

They were connecting an old weathered house on Airport Road to the utilidor, or utility corridor, the major encased pipe system for transporting water and sewage. Giant screws called helical piers reach 10 to 60 feet down through permafrost to anchor the utilidor to firm ground.

"It actually works really well," said Garry Bowley, CE2 Engineers' longtime construction superintendent in Hooper Bay. "Very, very little heaving problem."

Hooper Bay's system combines technology like that used on cruise ships -- vacuum pumps that suck the sewage through pipes -- with a modern computer-controlled water treatment plant and a critical satellite facility housing the vacuum station as well as equipment to boost the water pressure. When the vacuum activates, the utilidor rumbles like a train.

Overall the system is well run, said Brian Lefferts, director of Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp.'s office of environmental health and engineering.

Local plant operators are aided by a YKHC remote maintenance worker stationed in St. Mary's who gives advice over the phone and flies into the village as needed. Back in 2011, remote workers helped when one vacuum sewer pump failed and another was running rough; in 2013 a remote worker flew there when two well pumps failed and found a totally clogged pump screen. The local plant's team changed the maintenance schedule as a result, Lefferts said in an email.

"The operators in Hooper Bay are good operators and tend to stay on top of things," he wrote.

Concerns that Hooper Bay's water was too brackish were addressed by construction of a big well field. Five new wells were drilled in 2001 and initial tests were run over nine months for water quality and flow rates.

Now "we have six wells that we sip out of," Bowley said.

A heat trace cable that runs the length of the utilidor and smaller pipes can be activated during extreme cold to warm up the system and prevent costly and damaging freeze-ups.

Bowley, who stands out in Hooper Bay with his fleet of big pickups and a long white beard, has overseen water and sewer projects all over Alaska stretching back more than 30 years, when he worked with the U.S. Public Health Service. In Hooper Bay, 16 local workers are on the project, plus himself and those with extra credentials and expertise who fly into the village, including a plumber, an electrician and a property surveyor. CE2 Engineers serves as the construction manager and hires local crews under a system that ensures both local hire and development of a village-based pool of skilled workers.

Crews work on homes that mirror their own, in which tiny rooms are makeshift bathrooms, with a garbage bag-lined honey bucket, or two or four or even six of them.

"They've had to deal with 5-gallon buckets full of human waste in their home their entire lives," said Mick Bradford, the project construction foreman and a plumber by trade. He oversees the work inside houses. Some elders cry when the water is turned on. "They've waited so long."

Edgar Tall, a father of five who has worked on the project since 2006, just got hookups at his own home. His young children got in the tub, and stayed in a long while.

"I feel relieved from mostly everything. Hygiene. Chores," Tall said. He worried about his children getting sick. "We weren't very often taking a shower." Now they can do so every day if they want.

At the job site, crews rip out rotted wood, level floors that settled unevenly over the years, and install supports for tubs and toilets. They build new bathroom walls that screw in for easy access to pipes. They replace the kitchen countertop and worn out cabinets with ones that feature self-closing drawers. New heavy-duty flooring the color of desert sand replaces scarred old linoleum.

The cost to renovate a house that didn't have plumbing to begin with: $33,500, plus another $22,000 to connect each home to the main pipes, said Magee of Village Safe Water. Even the in-home work is covered by the state and federal grants.

"We do what it takes to make this the best part of the house," Bradford said.

“Thank you very much”

The day the water was turned on, Theresa Kaiser's home was full of children and grandchildren, both young and grown.

A daughter was the first to shower. Two kids played in the kitchen sink, scooping up water with cups and pails. But another daughter washed her pants in a bucket on the floor with water heated on the stove. A young woman washed her hair in a plastic bin.

"I'm so proud of them," said Jennifer Naneng, 29, another of Kaiser's children and herself a mother of five who adopted out one of them. She sat on the couch watching her mother and the rest adjust to their new world. Her home isn't yet hooked up.

Seven people live at the Kaiser house now and the old honey bucket room looked rough and stank something terrible, Naneng said. At her home, the honey buckets sit in the Arctic entry. "I don't let it stay in our house."

Kaiser, who is in her 50s and has never had running water before, took a sip of what came out of the tap.

"Does it taste like Clorox?" someone asked.

"No, it's good," she said. But she still may pack water for some things, she said. Some village residents stick with melted pond ice or rainwater for tea.

"Running water is better than honey buckets," Kaiser said. Going to the dump is such a nasty chore. Bucket spills leave brown stains on the sugary snow along the four-wheeler path between the landfill and the sewage lagoon. In the summer, the smell is overpowering, residents say. Boardwalks where children play get messy too.

"We always step on the stinky stuff," Kaiser said. "Then it's on your shoes. Kids will get sick."

The little children used to bathe in a blue tub set on the floor. Kaiser would go to the washeteria once a week for a steam bath, or maqi, and a shower. She'll still go for a steam, she said.

Kaiser's husband, Paul, died suddenly in 2011, a year after a son, Benji, was tortured and murdered in Bethel at age 19 over, as Naneng tells it, "a truck and a girlfriend." The walls of the living area are covered with photo memorials of the two.

Next door is the home of Paul's mother, the one they call Theresa Kaiser Sr. Crews were gutting the honey bucket room to prepare for installation of the plumbing.

The elder Theresa, who is 82, usually speaks in Yup'ik but had a message in English for the workers and those behind the project.

"Thank you very much for a bathroom and fresh water," she said.

Two-year stall

All told, $31 million has been spent on the project. Besides a steadily growing number of homes, a 19-unit apartment complex, the school and teacher housing, the health clinic and health worker housing, the Alaska Commercial Co. store and its worker housing, and the post office/courthouse all are hooked up.

Another $17 million is in hand to connect and renovate more homes.

One piece of the project not yet funded is a $3 million upgrade to the sewage lagoon. With 25,000 gallons of sewage pumped in each day, the lagoon already is at its capacity as more homes are being hooked up, according to DEC's Village Safe Water program.

The whole project is taking far longer than the 10 years Bowley originally expected.

"I'm going to pack up my honey bucket and send it to Tony Knowles," said Maria Oaks, Hooper Bay's school secretary, half joking about the former governor's famous goal of retiring honey buckets to the museum by 2005.

In 2012 and 2013, Hooper Bay's water and sewer project stalled. The city-owned utility was a financial mess, state reviews found. The grant money stopped flowing while officials sorted it out.

"We were trying to collect from community members but they were reluctant," said Bosco Olson, who came out of retirement last year to serve as acting city administrator, a job he has held off and on since the 1970s.

Millions of dollars in state and federal grants to hook up dozens of more homes were in jeopardy, said Myron Naneng, president of the Bethel-based Association of Village Council Presidents as well as Sea Lion Corp., his hometown's village corporation.

The state spent years working with Hooper Bay on its accounting system but the city never consistently measured up and failed to produce a budget broken down between the washeteria and the piped system, according to state Rural Utility Business Advisor reports, part of a program that monitors and provides a helping hand to rural utilities.

The city asked Sea Lion if it could take over. Subsidiary Sea Lion Energy Services LLC did so last year. It uses a professional accounting firm, Mikunda Cottrell Accounting & Consulting, or MCAC, which reassured state managers. The project resumed. Sea Lion now collects the $85 monthly fee from water and sewer customers.

Fixing the toilet

But Sea Lion, a village corporation with businesses that include Alaska Glacier bottled water out of Eklutna, also has challenges. The city agreed to turn over 80 percent of its state revenue-sharing dollars to bolster the water and sewer operation – dollars that may be in jeopardy with the low price of oil and a state budget deficit in the billions.

Sea Lion still is working on its collection and cutoff policy, a hard line to draw in a village where everyone knows one another and many people are related, said Tara-Jo Anderson, who serves as both operations director for various Sea Lion entities and as a MCAC accounting manager. While Sea Lion's customer list includes 10 homes cut off before it took over, the for-profit corporation hasn't yet disconnected others, she said. But before it are another eight residential accounts at least 90 days overdue, Anderson said.

One idea is to allow residents to assign a portion of their Sea Lion dividends – which have been $700 twice a year recently – for their water bill, said Anderson, who usually visits Hooper Bay twice a month to oversee the billing and collections.

Some gave up on their new plumbing when something went wrong, she said. They didn't seem to understand that they must maintain the fixtures inside their home and keep the pipes from freezing.

"Because we still get calls now -- 'My toilet is clogged up. You need to come fix it,' " she said. "Or 'We didn't have money for heating fuel and now it's frozen, and you need to come fix that.' That's not part of this program."

Some residents return to what they knew, their honey buckets, Anderson said.

"It's not like they can run down to Home Depot and grab the things they need to fix it," she said.

Across Alaska, many village water systems are aging and at risk of failure. State officials add up close to $850 million worth of need not yet funded, including construction of first-time water and sewer systems and upgrades or replacements to address substantial health threats. About 30 villages still rely mainly on honey buckets. A dozen others depend on troublesome and expensive small-haul systems.

The state doesn't intend to fund any more of those small systems, which operate with local residents on all-terrain vehicles hauling tanks of water to homes and tanks of waste to lagoons, according to DEC officials. Small individual holding tanks that are costly to refill or pump out lead people to severely ration themselves, limiting the health benefits they would normally receive from running water, officials said.

In late February, work again came to a halt in Hooper Bay. The state Village Safe Water program discovered that a survey required by the federal government to check for archaeological artifacts hadn't been done. Other parts of the neighborhood had been checked. But the main piping had been installed in an area without required checks. The survey will be done this summer, Magee said.

Not yet on the list for indoor plumbing: Hooper Bay's Old Town. Magee said most of the 50-plus homes are plywood and in disrepair, lots are too small for easements, and property lines run over each other.

Sea Lion's general manager, William Naneng, said he believes those issues can be worked out, and the project superintendent, Bowley, said he agreed, for some of the homes.

The people in Old Town, Naneng said, need running water too.

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