Simplifying sanitation in rural Alaska communities

One year after a sanitation system pilot project was installed, Kivalina residents are experiencing the benefits.

Kivalina, an Alaska Native village located on the Chukchi Sea, has made statewide and national headlines in recent years because of climate change. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers predict the village's current location will be underwater in 10 years or less, but for many residents, an even more pressing issue is at stake—sanitation.

The tiny Western Alaska town has no piped water or sewer system and residents rely on a self-haul method to dispose of human waste—meaning many residents use a five-gallon bucket lined with a heavy-duty trash bag, also known as a "honey bucket," in their homes as their toilet facility. Exposure to raw sewage poses many health risks for residents in communities using this system, including respiratory complications and the risk of contaminating clean water with waterborne pathogens.

"The reality is that most of us take flowing water and flush toilets in our homes for granted," said John Warren, director of engineering services for the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. "We go camping and deal with inconvenience, but it is temporary. This situation, in some cases is permanent, and the health impacts are devastating."

Warren has been with ANTHC for a little over 15 years, traveling all over the state to rural communities and witnessing firsthand the health impacts from the lack of accessibility to clean water and sewer systems. Kivalina, like many remote Alaska communities, because of its location, faces environmental challenges like erosion and flooding, which makes access to funding for building water and sewer infrastructure difficult. Many agencies are hesitant to build costly systems in such remote locations. Warren believed there had to be a low-cost, simple solution for communities without access to sewer and water.

In 2012, he hit a turning point while conducting a climate change impact assessment in Kivalina after seeing the poor conditions the residents were living in and their exposure to major health risks from having raw sewage in their homes.

"There wasn't any place other than the landfill to dispose of honey buckets, so waste is simply tossed onto the ground where birds and other animals can spread waste," Warren said. "There is no organized honey bucket haul system, meaning some waste doesn't make it to the landfill."

During the winter, waste that doesn't make it to the landfill is left out in the open to freeze and come spring, after the snow melts, it is exposed to residents in the community. So Warren assembled a team and worked toward obtaining a grant. ANTHC partnered with the Cold Climate Housing Research Center to design, build and test the Portable Alternative Sanitation System (PASS). It took about three years of work before the team was able to implement its pilot program for the nine residents who volunteered to be part of the project.

PASS integrates low-tech components to comprise a complete water and sanitation system all within the home. Water for the system is collected and transferred from a rain catchment system or hauled from the washeteria or another source to the 100-gallon tank through a set of filters attached to the unit. For the removal of waste, the system includes a toilet that separates the solids from the liquids. The liquids are flushed out of the home into a seepage pit, and the solids are hauled away. The toilet has an internal fan, drying out the solid waste helping eliminate odor and makes transferring of waste easier on residents.

The PASS system can be assembled and reassembled if a homeowner or community needs to relocate. It does not rely on the traditional piped water and sewer system to operate.

"I think the whole idea itself is motivating," said Korie Hickel, a senior environmental health consultant who came onto the project after the feasibility study to help with implementation, outreach and community education.

The Kivalina PASS pilot project just wrapped up its first year in August and so far, according to Hickel, the feedback has been encouraging. She's spent the last year interviewing the volunteers, spending time in their homes and taking notes to measure the success of the project. There've been a few lessons learned along the way and she said their team has refined the PASS system—but overall they're happy with the pilot.

"We went into this knowing there would be issues to work through and we explained all that to the participants," Hickel said. "The words that I hear are, that it's more sanitary, that it's more healthy, more clean and it's a lot less work for them to haul the honey bucket away."

There's still much more work to be done: Warren and Hickel agree they need a larger sample to continue to refine the system. The main challenge now is finding funding for the next phase of the project.

For now, Warren's team will keep working with Kivalina's residents, improve the PASS system and when the funding comes, expand the project to more rural communities in need.

"The challenge has been making a complex technology operable and maintainable by individual residents," Warren said. "The PASS system is designed to improve quality of life and health."

This article was produced by the special content department of Alaska Dispatch News in collaboration with ANTHC. Contact the editor, Jamie Gonzales, at The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.