Pipes, plumbing, and public relations: The life of an Alaska water plant operator

SPONSORED: When the toilets stop flushing, the neighbors start calling. Meet the man who keeps things flowing in this St. Lawrence Island community.

When there’s a plumbing problem in Savoonga, Scott Kingeekuk’s phone begins to ring.

Born and raised in Savoonga, Kingeekuk, 33, remembers when the village still used honey buckets. He was a teenager when the wastewater plant opened, ushering in a new era of indoor plumbing and sanitation.

Today Kingeekuk is the lead water plant operator for the St. Lawrence Island community -- and the guy the neighbors call when there’s a problem with their pipes.

“Now they can’t live without it,” he said. “As soon as a toilet’s down, I’ll get a call. They want their toilets working again.”

Clean water, better health

Before home water and wastewater service arrived in Savoonga, running water was previously only available at the community washeteria. The water plant was life-changing, Kingeekuk said.

“Definitely made it a lot easier for people to stay clean, do their laundry,” he said. “Hygiene went up. I can tell kids have less cavities, they’re brushing their teeth more, washing up more.”

Despite a decades-long public health effort, more than 3,000 Alaska homes still lack running water and sanitation, according to the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation. In-home water service is linked to decreased rates of infectious disease, and in Savoonga, Kingeekuk said the improvement to public health was easy to see -- and smell.

“The honey buckets were themselves an issue,” he said. “Some people weren’t throwing them away and they’d deposit them outside their homes. The dump site was pretty close to town, so the smell was kind of bad. I remember during the summers we had a blackfly infestation.”

Elders in particular had a hard time if they didn’t have anyone at home who could help them properly dispose of their waste, he added. The improvement to quality of life was significant for every person in the village.

“Having clean, safe water -- potable water -- and having a sewer system is really important for the community,” Kingeekuk said.

A day in the life

Kingeekuk’s workday starts at the water plant, but it takes him all over town.

“I come to the water plant, make sure everything’s running correctly, operating like it should,” said Kingeekuk. “I gather readings from all the pumps and components of the system, make sure there’s enough chlorine for the incoming raw water.” Kingeekuk and his staff also check the sewage lagoon twice daily, a round trip of about a mile each time.

That’s only part of what his team does, however. There are about 150 houses in Savoonga, and on any given day, Kingeekuk or a member of his crew -- he supervises a backup operator and two on-call staff -- is likely to be called to at least one or two of them. Kingeekuk said the plant generally takes a couple of service calls every day, frequently plugged toilets or leaky bathroom fixtures.

“We have a pretty intricate sewer system,” Kingeekuk said. “It’s a vacuum sewer system. When one toilet goes, it affects the whole system.”

The toughest part of the job, he added, can be communicating with the public about system repairs, issues, and -- unfortunately -- shutoffs due to non-payment. Facebook is a handy tool to broadcast what’s going on with the sanitation system, and billing is handled through the Alaska Rural Utility Collaborative, but it falls to Kingeekuk to manually terminate service. It can be uncomfortable to tell a neighbor that he has to come over and shut off their water until they get caught up on payments.

“It really does get awkward, but it’s got to be done,” Kingeekuk said. “I’m at the point where they know I’m just doing my job, so that kind of made it easier.”

Battling burnout

In communities with water service, filling jobs like Kingeekuk’s -- and keeping them filled -- can be challenging. Some communities aren’t able to offer competitive wages. Training and certifications are required. Some systems are starting to show their age and can be tricky to maintain, as Savoonga’s was when Kingeekuk started working there as a relief operator in 2011. Kingeekuk said he was worried at first that he wasn’t qualified to do the job.

“I went in blind,” he said. “I didn’t know anything about water and sewer.”

His first year, he was immersed in hands-on training. Kingeekuk was already mechanically minded, having grown up helping his uncles with machine repair and attending motorcycle mechanic school in Arizona. He soon found he had an aptitude for working with the wastewater system.

“Taking apart pumps and troubleshooting pumps or panels kind of came naturally because I had that mechanical background,” he said. And as the years went on, he got more formal training in addition to his on-the-job learning; he now has five technical certificates and is a Level II wastewater operator. This year he was named Alaska Rural Water Association’s Wastewater Operator of the Year.

But there’s more to his position than knowing how to flush a line or fix a leak.

“It’s a pretty demanding job,” Kingeekuk said. “It can get really stressful. I myself say it’s not for everybody.”

He recalled attending a water plant operators’ retreat at which a lot of operators talked about burnout that tends to hit after about five years on the job.

“It’s kind of an underappreciated job for sure,” he said. “They don’t even think about you until their toilet clogs up or their shower quits working or something.”

Kingeekuk said he has felt that same burnout, wondering at one point if he should leave his job. But he sticks with it -- partly because of Savoonga’s limited employment options, but largely because he recognizes the important role he plays in the village.

“I came this far,” he said. “Why quit now? People need me.”

And, he added, it’s satisfying to know that what he does really matters to his friends, family and neighbors.

“The most rewarding thing is, I’d say, helping people,” he said. “Just being able to serve the community in a way nobody else can.”

This story was sponsored by Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, a statewide nonprofit Tribal health organization designed to meet the unique health needs of more than 175,000 Alaska Native and American Indian people living in Alaska.

This story was produced by the creative services department of the Anchorage Daily News in collaboration with Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.