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Viable solutions to rural Alaska's sanitation issues may be emerging

According to the news in this Arctic Sounder article by Shady Grove Oliver, solutions to rural Alaska's need for clean, affordable and sustainable water and sewer systems may be emerging. 

New waste management system heads for Kivalina

March 25th 2:25 pm | Shady Grove Oliver      

There are many things buckets are good for and honey shouldn't be one of them.

That's the mentality of a handful of organizations, engineers, and intrepid residents looking for a sustainable and affordable replacement for honey buckets in Kivalina. They're midway through a year-long test project, which will conclude with the addition of a new waste management system this summer.

Honey buckets can be messy and unsanitary and are often kept in closed rooms in people's homes without adequate ventilation, which makes for unsavory indoor air quality. To put it bluntly, honey buckets pose a serious risk to human health.

"It's a biohazard," said Dean Westlake, director of village economic development for NANA Regional Corp, Inc.

In many villages, residents' honey buckets are emptied by hand into a communal waste pit, sewage lagoon, or straight into the town dump.

En route, it's not uncommon for a bag full of waste to split or tear and spill excrement on the ground which makes a mess in summer or freezes in winter.

"When the spring floods come, you're literally awash in fecal matter," said Westlake. "There's no way that anyone would want to live like that and they shouldn't have to."

Last fall, NANA, the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, Re-Locate Kivalina, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and water and sewer design companies came together to install nine test toilets and water systems in Kivalina.

Reppi Swan was one of the recipients.

"It changed a lot and so far it's been good to me," said Swan. "I like it a lot. It's cleaner."

Crews installed a two-part system. There's a separator toilet with a gray water tank and also, a water storage tank with a filtration system that can be used in conjunction with a sink to simulate running water.

The water system was built by CampWater Industries and costs about $3,500 per unit. It's the CabinWater in-home model based on an earlier, smaller model meant for portable use.

"This was designed to fit in a riverboat and go out to fish camp and make safe water where the river is infested with giardia and bacteria and all other kinds of things," said Jon Dufendach, the designer for CampWater.

Dufendach worked in the oilfields for many years. After retiring, he decided to start on a new career path tackling one of the most troubling problems he'd encountered in rural Alaska: unsafe water.

"I knew the need was there," he said. He became a State of Alaska Drinking Water Sanitary Survey Inspector, joined a number of water associations and taught himself how to build water systems.

"I got every book I could find about how to fix water," he said.

He designed a series of systems before he made CampWater, which has since been sent to Mexico, Colombia, several locations in Africa and Asia, Haiti, and the South Pacific.

"And now, we're getting them out into the Alaska Bush which is a whole lot closer to home," he said.

His employees worked to install them in the nine test homes in Kivalina in coordination with LifeWater Engineering, maker of the separator toilet.

"There's an estimated 6,000 homes in Alaska that don't have running water or flush toilets. So, this was an intermediate step instead of having a full-blown system or a wastewater treatment plant, we have a water separating toilet," explained Larry Fleishman with LifeWater.

The toilet separates solids and liquids. The liquids go into a gray water holding tank and the solids are stored in the toilet where they're ventilated by a fan, which dries them out and reduces their volume by about 80 percent.

It would take about four weeks for two people to fill it up enough to the point of needing to be emptied, he estimated.

"You're reducing the exposure to any pathogens and it also becomes a more physically attractive device in your bathroom," said Fleishman.

For Swan, the toilet has reduced the amount of time he spends taking out the waste.

"It's a whole lot less work than using the honey bucket," he said. "With the honey bucket, I changed it once a week."

While the water system has been successful in each of the homes, the toilet worked in only eight of them.

"I took it out of the house. It was not working for us," said resident Stanley Hawley. "When the wind blew, the fumes that were supposed to vent outside the house ended up blowing back into the house. Then, the indoor storage tank kept overflowing and it overflowed onto the floor in the bathroom. Then, the mechanical part didn't work either. We ended up with a bunch of solids right there on top in the catchment basin and had to physically scoop it out and clean it up. It ended up being more work and more of a hassle, so we took it out."

He'd be willing to try out a different type of honey bucket replacement, but it would have to be a better design, he said.

Despite it not working in his home, he applauds the manufacturers for giving it a shot.

"At least somebody's trying," he said. "You have to give them credit for that. At least they're trying."

Residents will take the plunge into the unknown once again this summer, when the second phase of the waste management system goes in place.

Rather than being tied to individual homes, this system will serve the entire community in the form of a sanitary, eco-friendly, inexpensive, and hopefully sustainable biochar reactor.

"Using this biochar unit, you can take cardboard and everything else, burn it with the human waste, and make charcoal," said Westlake. "You can use it in your wood stove or in your garden."

The reactor was designed by the Climate Foundation and won the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation's "Reinvent the Toilet Challenge," which called for new toilet designs that remove germs from waste, operate off the grid without needing water, sewer, or electrical lines, cost less than 5 cents per user per day, and promote "sustainable and financially profitable sanitation services."

It shreds the waste, dries it on a belt, chars and sanitizes it, recaptures its own heat to power the system, and reduces the waste to a usable charcoal product, according to a concept design paper by Theresa Theuretzbacher at the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, Vienna.

This will be the first time a unit is tested in Alaska, though it's been used in India and Africa.

The unit will require operators, which Westlake said would bring jobs and training opportunities into Kivalina, as well.

Whether or not it will live up to its expectations remains to be seen. For now, residents like Reppi Swan are just happy to be moving in the right direction.

"I think there would be less sickness in town," he said. "It's good for us."