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In Stebbins, Wastewater Management Is a Community Effort

Snow-covered, rural Alaska street on a partly cloudy winter day.

Delayed equipment, leaking honey buckets, and snowstorms have the potential to be disastrous for rural Western Alaska communities without running water or sewage.

Early this winter, a honey bucket disposal haul truck broke down in the City of Stebbins, and it has been a multiple-community, multiple-entity effort to keep the city clean.

But Stebbins is far from the only rural community looking for help in recovering wastewater. Marty Brewer is the program manager for the Village Safewater program within the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (ADEC).

“We have received over 40 applications for our first quarter awards consideration… ”

Those applications are for IPF, or Infrastructure Protection Funding, and all of those applications are from fiscal year 2019 alone. That funding is available to cities who operate their own wastewater systems but need assistance maintaining their “critical needs”: 

“When I talk about critical needs, I’m talking about the operation and maintenance needs. Things wear out: things like pumps in their water treatment plant and to handle their wastewater transport, things like that, that operationally have a finite life span that they need assistance with.”

Stebbins applied for a new haul truck using those funds. Brewster says that their application will be reviewed with the rest sometime in early March. The funds are meant to be more emergency-based than long-term development.

Despite equipment problems, the city has had success in improving waste management infrastructure. According to Rachel Lee, the Norton Sound Health Corporation (NSHC) has been able to provide over $50,000 for 13 replacement honey bucket community collection bins. Rachel Lee is the Environmental Health Director for NSHC.

While the City of Stebbins passed an ordinance in October to make residents responsible for taking their trash to the landfill, the City does empty the communal honey bucket bins that are dispersed around town. Residents are required to take the waste from their homes to the larger bins dispersed throughout the community. According to Lee, there had been some concern over those old bins leaking in the past. These new bins could be a big help, Lee describes it as a “pretty awesome group effort for that improvement.”

Joan Nashoanik is the City Administrator for Stebbins. She has been working to secure funding and replacements for equipment from a variety of sources. According to Nashoanik, the 13 replacement bins were installed in December and are dispersed throughout town, accessible to residents’ homes. Lee says she hasn’t heard of any other communities in the Norton Sound region that are currently having issues with honey bucket management, but she does note that the system of waste management in each community is different and that the type of equipment used varies by city.

Environmental Health Director Rachel Lee says that defining an unpiped community in rural Alaska is difficult. The level of piping and service to each community varies. Even if a community has sewage and water, many homes in a village may not be part of that system; thus, she hesitates to give a number of “un-piped” communities in the Norton Sound region. ADEC defines an unserved community as “in which 55% or less of homes are served by a piped, septic & well, or covered haul system”.

Nashoanik was able to secure more four wheelers for the city to use through the Norton Sound Economic Development Corporation (NSEDC) community development quota (CDQ) program. Those were last in Unalakleet on Saturday and scheduled for delivery. Until the haul truck arrives, those can be used to haul away waste.

In the meantime, Stebbins has been renting equipment from the community of St. Michael. But, Nashoanik says, it has been expensive.

According to the City Administrator, any pile-ups of waste in city limits have been handled, and lime has been laid down throughout the area to breakdown any spilled waste. She reminds residents to call the city if they have concerns and that they can always bring their concerns to Stebbins’ monthly city council meetings.

Image at top: A residential street in Stebbins, Alaska, in winter. Photo: Emily Russell, KNOM.