Last Tuesday, the Acting Director of the Indian Health Service (IHS) met with community leaders in Wales and Shishmaref to see firsthand the sanitation challenges Alaska Native villages face.
KNOM’s JoJo Phillips Reports:
Rear Admiral Michael Weahkee, the Director of IHS, began his tour of several Norton Sound regional communities in Wales. He was joined by representatives from Norton Sound Health Corporation (NSHC) and met with tribal leaders to learn about the community’s outdated sewage facilities. Director Weahkee said he found the visit to the unserviced village informative and productive.
“We talked a lot about the health disparities that exist because of that lack of infrastructure and started to talk about how we might team together with the state of Alaska and the Environmental Protection Agency to find the funding necessary to put that infrastructure in place.”
An “unserviced community” is the official terminology for one lacking access to residential water and sewage. Currently in the Norton Sound region, the villages of Wales, Shishmaref, Diomede, Stebbins, and Teller all fit this description.
Frank Oxereok, Jr., is the Mayor of Wales. He says the village has been fighting for water and sewer since before he was born. However, Oxereok remains cautiously optimistic about the future of his community and still appreciated visits from federal entities like the one last Tuesday.
“I’m second generation advocating for water and sewer here in Wales. I think it’s better late than never. There’s a light down the tunnel, and hopefully in the very near future, we’ll be able to get water and sewer for our communities, which will improve the health of our communities so much.”
According to Oxereok, the current water and sewage system in Wales is outdated, difficult to use, and long overdue for renovation.
“It’s something so many people take for granted: when you need water, people just turn the faucet on. And up here in Wales, we still have to haul the water in and haul the water out.”
Wales, along with other unserviced villages, uses a “honey-bucket system” in which waste is collected by-the-bucket from individual houses and hauled off to a lagoon nearby. Mayor Oxereok described the system as “not so clean.”
The visiting IHS and NSHC members also visited Wales’ washeteria, which has not been renovated since the early seventies and is a heavy financial burden on the community. Director Weahkee commented on the state of the facility:
“Definitely, that washeteria was showing its age. Only one of the showers works, and they’ve done a lot of patching up of that facility. It’s in bad need of an update.”
There are plans to begin construction on a new washeteria next spring, and Mayor Oxereok believes the new facility is arriving just in time.
“We’ve just got one more winter,” he said, laughing. “Knock on wood, we’ll make it!”
New changes are also in store for Shishmaref, which was the next stop on the tour for Director Weahkee.
According to Donna Barr, the Vice President of Shishmaref’s Tribal Council, there were lengthy discussions on the construction of a new reservoir, the expansion of the village’s dump site, and the addition of a new water/holding tank. Community leaders also took time to walk Director Weahkee along Shishmaref’s coastline and explain how climate change is responsible for recent erosion.
However, the process of servicing Wales and Shishmaref will come with a hefty price tag. Director Weahkee says his engineers estimate the cost for a community the size of Wales — with a population of roughly two-hundred — could be up to $21 million. But he maintains that funding for such a project is out there.
“Those communities that don’t have water or sewage systems are what we call Deficiency Level 5s, and those always rise to the top as our priority.”
According to the IHS Director, that’s exactly why in-person visits are so important. He says they give him a foundation to advocate for more funding and better prepare his presentations to Congress.
“The villages help to visually share. We’ve seen today and we’ve heard from Tribal Leadership directly what they need. 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.”
Director Weahkee concluded his trip with a tour of the Norton Sound Regional Hospital in Nome. He was impressed with the state-of-the-art treatment center and amenities, commenting on how this level of care should be accessible throughout the region.
“This beautiful new facility is exactly what we want to do in every community throughout Alaska where we have large native populations.”
It is unclear if the Indian Health Service has any plans to allocate funding to make that vision a reality. Meanwhile, Alaska Native villages like Wales hope federal assistance for residential water and sewer can become more than just a pipe dream.
Image at top: Rear Admiral Michael Weahkee (far right) surveys sanitation facilities in Shishmaref. Photo by Megan Alvanna-Stimpfle.
Correction: an earlier version of this story confused the population of Wales with that of Shishmaref. The correct population figure has been added.
The photo accreditations have also been updated for greater accuracy.