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Profile: ‘Unserviced’ Communities Part 1 – Why Five Bering Strait Villages Don’t Have Basic Sanitation

St. Michael's water tank is showing its age in February of 2020. Photo from JoJo Phillips, KNOM (2020).

As aging water systems, climate change, and federal and state bureaucracy threaten the public health of Alaska Native villages across the Bering Strait region, local residents struggle to find the funds for critical water & sewer infrastructure. In part one of this two-part series discussing unserviced communities in Western Alaska, KNOM follows the money.

Some communities like St. Michael rely on crumbling infrastructure to meet their daily sanitation needs. Others depend on untrained water operators. Currently, the villages of Wales, Shishmaref, Diomede, Stebbins and Teller are considered “unserviced”— meaning they lack access to residential water and sewage.

In Wales, the fight for water and sewer spans generations. Frank Oxereok Jr. is Mayor of the relatively small coastal community. His father Frank Sr., who also served in local politics, instilled in Oxereok the importance of sacrifice from a young age.  

“This is what my father and my brothers taught me—ever since I was younger—our elders used to say, you have to take care of your children and teach them. At the time we never thought about it but now, at this age, these things come back to me every time I think about community.”

– Frank Oxereok Jr.

Oxereok Jr. wants his grandkids to be able to turn on the faucet and wash their hands before sitting down for dinner. He wants his children to pour themselves a glass of water when they are thirsty. Although the community’s school and clinic have running water, Oxereok Jr. says villagers must rely on natural sources for residential needs.

“We use two different types of water. We use snow water for washing and we use water from the North and South creek for drinking.”

Over the years, the Mayor has learned to pick his battles. Right now, he is focused on rebuilding Wales’ 50-year-old washeteria, which is run by the city for community use and has two working showers for approximately 200 people.

Wales, Alaska
Wales, Alaska and its nearby countryside and seascape. Photo: Mitch Borden, KNOM.

Construction on a new facility is slated to begin in July, but the road to cutting the ribbon has been a winding one. Broken promises and poorly organized coalitions have hardened the Mayor’s optimism. Following in his father’s footsteps, Oxereok Jr. has come to realize a certain financial reality:

“Yeah. I think after he left, I kind of stepped in[to] his shoes. And the main thing always comes down to—what I hear more than anything else—is cost. Money.”

Money talks. Off the road system, where the cost of construction can balloon to Hindenburg size, money does most of the walking too.

Understanding where and when to apply for grants can be the difference between a working septic system and an unserviced community. However, for local governments and tribal entities throughout Western Alaska, the source of funding for largescale water and sewer projects has long been a subject of confusion and controversy. Take Wales, where some residents wonder if federal grants are handed out alphabetically. As Oxereok’s uncle was fond of saying:

“Wales is always down in the barrel so to speak. Like my uncle used to say: ‘down at the bottom of the barrel.'”

The major sources of funding for sanitation in the Bering Strait region are split between federal and state agencies. At the federal level, the Indian Health Service (IHS), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) have individually appropriated congressional funds to be distributed to Western Alaska.

Those three agencies in turn work with state and local entities, namely the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium (ANTHC). There’s Village Safe Water, a subsidiary of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation; and the Capital Improvement Program (CIP), whose projects are selected by the governor.

Essentially, there is a pot of money for regional communities. Each year, communities in the Bering Strait region must navigate a labyrinth of bureaucratic tape in the hopes of ladling from that pot. Some communities get lost along the way.

Let’s start at the top. According to the Indian Health Care Improvement Act (IHCIA), the IHS is tasked with improving community health and providing access to sanitation facilities for Alaska’s native population. To this end, the IHS compiles an annual list of communities suffering from sanitation deficiencies: the Sanitation Deficiencies System Manual (or SDS for short).

“Each project that was in that system has a deficiency level. The purpose of collecting all of that information is to be able to, one, report to congress what the needs are.”

– David Beveridge

David Beveridge is the Director of Operations for ANTHC’s Department of Environmental Health and Engineering. He explains the difference between a “Level 1” project and a “Level 5.”

“Projects in Alaska range from a DL1, which might be just routine replacements, might be painting water tank or replacing a valve. A DL5 project means a house is without water or sewer. Those are the highest-level projects.”

According to the most recent SDS cycle, the villages of Wales, Stebbins, Teller, Shishmaref, and Diomede are all categorized as level 5 deficient by the IHS. The SDS manual’s priority system awards projects a total score out of 100.

“So when the funding is received by the Indian Health Service, they go down that list of priority projects and fund them in priority order.”

Other factors include a “Best Practice” score, adopted from the State of Alaska, which Beveridge says accounts for more than 15% of a project’s total score.

In theory, the communities that most need the funds are the first to get them, according to IHS materials. The SDS manual was devised to create a federal record of where those communities are. Nonetheless, Alaska Native villages have struggled in recent years to get projects funded despite clear risks to public health.

Megan Alvanna-Stimpfle is the Self-Governance Liaison for the Norton Sound Health Corporation (NSHC). She noticed a number of projects in the region weren’t receiving IHS funding:

“Essentially what [the IHS] did last year… they said ‘We’re only going to serve native homes. If there are other structures in a community that are not native homes, you, tribe, are going to have to find a match for those structures.’”

– Megan Alvanna-Stimpfle

As stated in the IHCIA, the responsibility of the Indian Health Service is to a community’s native population. However, by requiring matching funds for structures such as schools, teacher homes, tribal offices, and post offices, the IHS placed basic sanitary needs for whole communities out of financial reach. As Alvanna-Stimpfle explains, if a community can’t find the money…

“You don’t get the whole funds, you don’t get the whole grants.”

In a congressional hearing this past December, Senator Lisa Murkowski articulated her displeasure with how the federal agency had changed its model.

“There have been interpretations more recently that are perhaps more stringent as to how those rules apply to non-Indian communities. Requiring IHS to then pay the “pro-ratic” contribution for whole project, which then make it absolutely impossible, infeasible, to move forward.”

Senator Lisa Murkowski

For example, in 2018, Kotzebue was forced to find tens of thousands of dollars in matching funds for a Level 5 sanitation project. They came up short and missed the entire funding cycle. The washeteria project in Wales has struggled with ineligible costs as well.

Speaking to KNOM last fall, Senator Murkowski was blunter with her reaction to IHS’ policy on what constituted a “Native community.”

“Yeah, I think it just boggles the mind to think that this is what we’re dealing with… It is a challenge. This is yet one more challenge [and] we’ll get beyond this one too.”

Woman in red kuspuk, standing, addresses room of seated attendees
Senator Murkowski at a community meeting in Brevig Mission. Photo courtesy of Karina Peterson Borger.

Missing out on a cycle means losing an entire year of planning and preparing. The same funds may not be available the next funding cycle, which could result in further setbacks. This is to say the new interpretations have cost communities a precious resource: time.

On top of that, the SDS model presents other challenges. Remember the Best Practice score Director Beveridge mentioned earlier. The score is an amalgamation of technical, managerial, and financial factors. Beveridge is clear to note a project’s BP will never preclude it from funding, but the score can have a significant impact on where a community ends up overall. One example, Beveridge explains, is whether water and sewer operators pass the state’s certification test.

“The operator certification system is not very favorable for rural Alaska. There’s about a seven percent pass rate on the test right now across the state.”

One potential reason for that low pass rate: access to certification training is extremely limited in the Bering Strait region. Racheal Lee, the Director of Environmental Health at Norton Sound Health Corporation, organizes training sessions for water operators annually. Lee told KNOM Radio last year there aren’t enough operators in the region.

Lee: We get about $19,000 from the Indian Health Service each year for the training program.

KNOM: Is that an adequate amount of funding?

Lee: No, absolutely not.

Now, it’s important to note that IHS is not responsible for all water and sewer funding in the region. According to ANTHC, over half of the money comes from the EPA, the Rural Development Program, and matching funds from the state’s Capital Improvement Program (CIP). There’s just one catch: CIP uses the same Best Practice score included in the SDS, and the EPA won’t release any funds to a community without a certified water operator.

Take the island community of Little Diomede, sitting just 30 miles west of the Seward Peninsula. The IHS initially appropriated the necessary funds for Diomede to have a new water treatment plant. However, Alvanna Stimpfle says…

“There was an ineligible cost portion of $50,000. I think ultimately [NSHC] paid to secure the funding, but the EPA said they wouldn’t fund it because there is no certified operator in Diomede.”

For years, Diomede has grappled with system failures and, in some instances, tests of Diomede’s drinking water have found arsenic in quantities above the legal limit.

Diomede, from the runway
The community of Diomede from the runway. Photo: Matty Guiffre, KNOM file.

Between the IHS narrowing the definition of a native community, the SDS’ reliance on the Best Practice score, and the EPA’s regulatory restrictions, the pot of money available to Western Alaska has grown smaller. The region’s response? Well, in the past, water and sewer advocates have traveled to D.C. to make their case. Last year, they decided to bring Washington north to Alaska.

NSHC hosted IHS officials twice last summer, including a trip from Acting Director Rear Admiral Michael Weahkee in August. Weahkee toured sanitation facilities in Wales, St. Michael, and Shishmaref. He met with city and tribal officials and, as Alvanna-Stimpfle told KNOM, regional leadership were not afraid to speak their minds.

“Talk to Alice Fitka, the president of St Michael’s Tribe. She’ll tell you. She hosted these officials in her home.”

A few months later, KNOM’s JoJo Phillips finally got the chance.

Alice Fitka invites KNOM into her home. Photo from JoJo Phillips, KNOM (2020).

“My home! Welcome to my home. Here. This (*points to red water jug) is how we gather our water, pack our water. We use these. Every single day we have to fill them. We use lots of water.

– Alice Fitka

Fitka is the head of St. Michael’s IRA. She runs tribal operations for the village of 400 but on a weekend in late February, we’ve stepped out of her office and into her kitchen. CNN blares on the radio in the background. Forlorn Christmas ornaments hang in the eaves, possibly waiting out the thaw. Her daughter is playing on the tiled floor. On the table in front of us sit three red jugs. They’re for drinking water.

Fitka, along with half of her community, has been without running water since the end of December. She wants to show KNOM what she showed Weahkee.

“I brought him [Weahkee]… After the meeting I brought about three or four of them [IHS officials] to individual homes and showed them the sump that we have so much trouble with. Those tiny little tanks–we call them sumps—and they’re placed in the home and to me that’s very unsanitary. Waste is going through there.”

When Fitka’s water system is working, the sump acts as a basic filtration device. Water, oil, and general filth collects in the sump. The filth is then pumped outside of the house. In Fitka’s experience, the little containers backup easily and cause a number of problems.

Fitka’s “sump” in her home in St. Michael. Photo from JoJo Phillips, KNOM (2020).

“A lot of us are having a problem because when [the Sump] fills up, it’s too small. It can’t keep up. It starts smelling and it really smells like gas. It’s not gas but… it’s coming from that sump in our house.”

St. Michael’s water and sewer system is almost two decades old, according to city grant writer Virginia Washington. Fitka wishes her community had more support from state and federal entities to upgrade their infrastructure.

“It’s hard to tell if they’ll ever be able to meet our needs of wanting a good, operational system. Look at the kind of support we’re getting right now. We’re not getting 100% support of getting the system fixed for our village. They come and band-aid—just do a band-aid job. I’m sorry if I sound negative or upset or disappointed, but it’s what we feel has been happening. Would they do that kind of a band-aid job in a city? I don’t think so.”

Alice Fitka won’t have running water again until the end of spring.

Following his visit to St. Michael back in August, IHS Acting Director Weahkee and his staff spent the afternoon in the sunlit hallways of the hospital in Nome. The King Island Drummers and Dancers performed for the visitors. After they played, KNOM asked Weahkee what he would do after seeing the unserviced communities firsthand.

“I can take these stories back east with me when I’m in a hearing with Senator Murkowski and her committee to tell them what I saw and what I heard directly, and that’s how we get the money necessary within the IHS budget to address these challenges.”

– Rear Admiral Michael Weahkee
IHS Officials in Wales
Rear Admiral Michael Weahkee (far right) surveys sanitation facilities in Shishmaref. Photo by Megan Alvanna-Stimpfle, used with permission (2019).

At his official confirmation hearing this past December, a time when temperatures in St. Michael hit 60° below zero, the Rear Admiral had the opportunity to make good on his word.

Addressing a panel of congressional leaders that included Senator Murkowski, Weahkee used his time to speak directly about the Bering Strait region.

“We know that in personal visits I’ve had the opportunity to make to Shishmaref and Wales, I’ve had the opportunity to see firsthand the limited facilities, the solid waste concerns… You definitely have my commitment to continue scanning the landscape for innovative solutions and to best use the Indian Health Services sources throughout Indian country.”

When asked to respond to the Rear Admiral’s remarks, Alice Fitka took the opportunity to extend an invitation to the federal government.

“Come and see for yourself. Come to our village and see it for yourself. Then you’ll understand what we’re going through. You need to come to our community. Meet with the right people. Go to the homes that have problems with their water and sewer system. Then you’ll understand and maybe you’ll do something to make a change in helping us.”

Mayor, Frank Oxereok Jr. of Wales believes Weahkee’s in-person visit and his remarks show progress.

“They saw first hand where we live and how we live.”

However, Oxereok is staying focused on Wale’s new washeteria. He won’t be celebrating until the last brick is laid.

“I’m still working with Village Safe Water and with the state and they would send me paperwork. They’d say “Hey Frank, you gotta sign this paper. This is the final paperwork you’ll have to sign.” That was a month ago. Two weeks ago, they send me another one. It’s ongoing. I’m starting to think I’ll be the happiest man when we cut the ribbon for that facility.”

A similar project in the unserviced community of Shishmaref is also scheduled for 2020, according to NSHC’s SDS database. Teller has applied for funding to rehabilitate its washeteria during the upcoming cycle. At the earliest, construction would begin in 2021.

After breezing through his Senate confirmation hearing on December 11th, Rear Admiral Michael Weahkee was set to be officially confirmed by congress last month [March]. That hearing has been indefinitely suspended due to another health crisis—the coronavirus pandemic.

UPDATE: Rear Admiral Weahkee was confirmed by voice vote as Director of the Indian Health Service on April 21st. His term is set at four years. According to ANTHC, water and sewer in St. Michael has been restored in all but five homes as of Wednesday, April 29th.

PART 2: Adapting to the Coronavirus Pandemic Without Water and Sewer

Image at top: St. Michael’s water tank is showing its age. Photo from JoJo Phillips, KNOM (2020).

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We acknowledge that KNOM Radio Mission is located on the customary lands of Indigenous peoples. 

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