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Severe Sewer Situation in St. Michael

IRA President for the Native Village of St. Michael, Alice Fitka, lives in a small house a few hundred yards from her office. Beside her home is a full “honey bucket” (the Western Alaskan term for a plastic-lined toilet bucket).

At the end of her drive, bulky metal pipes join to a steel culvert, which snakes along St. Michael’s coast. This main sewer line, referred to as the “north loop,” services about half of St. Michael’s 400 residents as well as the city hall and local high school.

A tribal coordinator for St. Michael points out the “north loop” water and sewer line on an aerial map of the community.

St. Michael’s lead water and sewer operator, Norbert Otten, has fought to thaw that north loop since Christmas. Despite more than two decades of experience with St. Michael’s system, Otten says he had insufficient firepower to win the battle.

Operator Norbert Otten performing maintenance on the City of St. Michael’s vacuum sewage plant. Photo by JoJo Phillips, KNOM.

Community members have often seen Otten, armed with a blowtorch, trying to no avail to thaw the north loop. Seeing no other option, leaders decided to wait for the frozen pipes to thaw naturally as spring arrives.

According to Virginia Washington, the city’s grant writer, the $200,000 price tag to hire an outside company to repair the system would more than drain the village’s emergency fund. Additionally, just last month, the city had to call an emergency meeting because of complications with their bulk fuel storage tanks.

Image at top: A St. Michael resident hauls water to his house, a daily routine for those without water in the village.