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2/3/2015 - More villages are using honey buckets, as experts seek alternatives to high-cost systems

Use of “honey buckets” is on the rise as funding falls and costly systems fail

By Johanna Eurich

Water and sewer sanitation are still a challenge in many rural Alaska villages. Experts in water and sewer sanitation attending a meeting last week say a recent trend is taking honey buckets out of the museum and putting them back into villages. 

Despite progress and billions spent building water and sewage systems, many villagers in remote places like the Yukon Kuskokwim region still haul water and use a bucket instead of a toilet -- every day.

Bob White, with The Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corporation, says that even in communities with water systems, buckets are the back-up toilet when things break down or freeze up. It smells bad and hauling it off... Well, is icky. 

"We've tried for...I don't know, 50 years to get rid of the honey-bucket,” said White. “And we're still using them and we're reverting back to them in some communities due to engineering solutions that just are overpriced and don't continue to function in the long term without a subsidy." 

The good news is that honey-bucket villages don't have high rates of diseases associated with handling human waste. Tom Hennessy, with the Centers for Disease Control, says the real problem lies in diseases associated with not enough washing of hands and bodies when people are rationing their water because they have to haul it. 

"Specifically those would be respiratory infections in infants, skin infections in people of all age, and even severe bacterial infections like meningitis or blood stream infections are more common in those communities that don't have piped in-home water service," said Hennessey. 

The challenge before experts attending the meeting held by the Arctic Research Commission and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is there isn't enough money to build, repair, operate and maintain centralized water and sewer systems in Alaska's small villages. The state and federal governments are short 70 million dollars annually to meet the most chronic and emergency needs in the bush. And that's only the constructions costs. 

That's why people are looking for cheaper options. 

Sewage lagoons are common in rural Alaska. Though cheaper than many systems, they are still expensive and no-one knows how well they work where winters are long and temperatures cold. The studies have not been done. 

Even when the lagoon appears to be working, operating in rural Alaska can pose logistical challenges. Take Upper Kalskag, where the lagoon is drained into the [Kuskokwim] River every fall just before freeze up and after the fishing season. 

John Nichols, with the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, says even if the pump works and the lines are not leaking, there is still a major communications challenge because Lower Kalskag is a few miles down river from where Upper Kalskag drains its lagoon. 

"And we found out the hard way,” said Nichols, “that that is really critical, to have that public outreach to make sure that everyone knows. Placing flyers doesn't get it done. You need to really communicate with both communities." 

Many want to try using natural systems like wetland and tundra ponds to clean the waste. Besides problems posed by federal laws like the Clean Water Act, there is also little data on how well this would work and the impact on wildlife and subsistence. Villagers already worry about the ducks they hunt, which swim and feed in sewage lagoons. 

Even if everything works in the sewage lagoon, there is still the huge problem of what to do with the sludge -- the solid stuff that sinks and accumulates at the bottom.

That technology doesn't exist in small bush villages. But here there is some good news. Alaskans have an advantage when it comes to composting sludge. We don't have heavy industry, so the final product is not high in heavy metals like it is in the lower 48.

Lori Aldrich with the state's Department of Environmental Conservation points to Fairbanks' sludge composting operation. "They sell out of compost every year,” said Aldrich. “Every summer it goes up for sale and people grab it in a hurry for their gardens." 

With less space for its sludge in the landfill, Kodiak is now building a composting facility. 

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Pribilof Islands shaken by a swarm of earthquakes

The Pribilof Islands are not usually prone to shaking but more than a dozen earthquakes have been recorded between St. Paul and St. George in the past several days. Michael West is director of the Alaska Earthquake Center. “This is a swarm of earthquakes, that is, a cluster of earthquakes that are responding to some stress in the earth that appears to be releasing itself kind of incrementally,” said West. Most of the earthquakes have been magnitude four or five. Residents in St. Paul and St. George have been feeling the effects, but as of Sunday [Feb. 1], there are no reports of damage in either community.