Alaska’s remote villages have a trashy problem

MANAGING rubbish in Alaska’s bush villages—small communities accessible only by boat or aircraft and often hundreds of miles from the nearest highway—is hard. Waste—including freezers, computers and vehicles—piles up with no easy way to remove it. Rural landfills, which are mostly open, unlined and unmanaged, spill across tundra and into nearby rivers, and hazardous materials leach into soil and water. Smoke from burning trash blows into villages, sometimes closing schools. From 2020, funding from the Environmental Protection Agency that has been essential for dealing with rubbish in these remote places will disappear.

Jan Olson is the City Administrator in Hooper Bay, a village of about 1,200 people at the edge of the Bering Sea, where children learn Yupik in school. Mr Olson describes his home as a “hunter’s dream, a gatherer’s dream”. Open tundra stretches for miles. A short distance from the village, residents can fill their larders with moose, seals, whale, walrus, geese, ducks, fish, clams and berries.

Mr Olson, whose office is less than 150 yards from the landfill, estimates that residents junk five to ten refrigerators each year and the same number of four-wheelers. Computers and other electronic waste as well as hazardous materials, such as car batteries and used motor oil, accumulate too. Complicating matters is the fact that more than half of village households—about 6,000 homes across the state—do not have indoor plumbing and instead rely on “honey buckets”, five-gallon buckets lined with a plastic bag and with a loo seat perched on top. Residents dump their buckets by foot or all-terrain vehicle in the landfill. The stench wafts into the nearby cemetery during funerals.

Research has linked birth defects, premature births and low birth weights—as well as temporary faintness, headaches, and nausea—to the open dumps. Leaching threatens drinking water. Most rural communities burn rubbish regularly. The smoke can contain dioxins, benzene and PCBs. Mr Olson attributes a recent outbreak of skin sores on local children to the fumes from a fire illicitly set at the dump.

Federal funds have been essential in helping people manage solid waste, shipping out hazardous materials for proper treatment, hiring landfill operators and educating local residents. In Hooper Bay, a village where 40% of the residents live below the federal poverty level, the expiration of these EPA grants will leave a big gap. “It’s already impossible to keep up with the junk,” Mr Olson said. “It’s going to get harder.”

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