The Denali Commission and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, awarded Kawerak Inc.’s Backhaul Alaska program with a three million dollar grant. Backhaul Alaska helps rid rural Alaska villages of toxic waste. The new grant will help Kawerak Inc. expand and continue this service.

Kawerak’s Backhaul Alaska program is separate from Alaska’s Backhaul Program, but worked with the statewide program to address a common need. Kawerak’s Backhaul program focuses on the importance of toxic waste disposal in rural villages. Anahma Shannon, Kawerak’s environmental specialist, said that the Denali Commission and EPA’s recognition of this pressing need is partially what inspired the grant.

“Every village, including Nome, burns trash at the landfill. Oftentimes we don’t know what’s in the pile that’s getting burned… if we are burning things like lead acid batteries or computers. A lot of those items have really toxic elements that, when burned create dioxins that are cancer causing.”

– Anahma Shannon

For many Alaska villages, unlined landfills are the only opportunity to dispose of waste. Disposing toxic waste in such landfills, harms Alaska’s air and water quality, as well as the health of residents. Kawerak’s Backhaul Alaska program coordinates ways to transfer rural Alaska’s hazardous waste to facilities equipped to dispose of toxic waste properly.

This process, called “shipping” or “backhauling,” allows members of Kawerak Inc. to work closely with village residents. Members of both communities participate in different elements of Kawerak’s Backhaul program. Carol Oliver, a resident of Golovin explained a typical day when the village works with Kawerak.

“And that’s where Peter Olson collects the large white goods like freezers, washers, dryers, everything from trucks to bicycles. You name it they’ve got it and then they work with Kawerak to remove the freons from the appliances before they are crushed and packed.”

– Carol Oliver

Golovin has truly benefitted from these efforts, Oliver said.

“And because of that program, our community looks very good, and we really appreciate that. We just love it.”

– Carol Oliver

With the grant, Kawerek aims to expand to more villages. In addition to Golovin, Kawerak Backhaul operates in Unalakleet, Stebbins, St. Michael, Shaktoolik, and White Mountain in the Bering Strait region alone.

Aside from expansion, Shannon believes the grant will allow Kawerek to make some “on the ground” changes to the program itself.

“We’re really looking forward to being able to utilize this money to develop infrastructure in our villages that will have long term effects of being able to accommodate this program. We are bolstering our training so that people are trained on how to properly package and label and ship items.”

– Anahma Shannon

This is the first grant of its kind that Denali and EPA have given out to a waste disposal initiative.

“Kawerak has been a leader in backhaul in the state over the past decade. We are excited about Kawerak’s plans to grow the Backhaul Alaska program and the support they will provide rural Alaska communities to safely dispose of hazardous waste.”

– Michelle Pirzdah

EPA and Denali consider themselves partners with Kawerak in their efforts to clean up Alaska.

Image at top: Workers sorting electronics at Kawerak’s June 2021 electronic waste event. Photo courtesy of Kawerak.