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Thawing Alaska permafrost prompts landfill concerns

Alex DeMarban
Photo courtesy Darrel T. John

Fearing numerous villages may be at risk of toxic releases as landfills erode and thawing permafrost undercuts tank farms, state environmental managers have embarked on a massive effort to address the growing potential for pollution faced by some 100 communities across Alaska.

Funded with a $1.4 million federal grant, the new effort will be unprecedented in scale, at least for the state's solid waste program. Officials will work with spill-prevention crews to assess the villages firsthand starting this summer, said Kristin Ryan, director of environmental health.

Villages and agencies tend to focus on installing or maintaining water and wastewater systems in rural Alaska, multi-million dollar amenities that numerous villages still lack. Less attention is given to the landfill problem, an issue that's become increasingly important as tundra crumbles amid warming temperatures, officials said.

In some communities, mounds of trash stretch along banks and everything from batteries to computers to refrigerators can tumble into rivers and oceans, leaching chemicals. Sometimes rusting fuel tanks sag and lean on the shifting permafrost like a rural Leaning Tower of Pisa, a hazard in the village of Newtok in Southwest Alaska where residents and the U.S. military are building a new townsite on dry ground.

The nonprofit Yukon River Intertribal Watershed Council has worked with Crowley Maritime and other shipping companies for several years to rid villages of major items like clunker cars, computers and refrigerators -- taking them to big cities for recycling -- but the program is limited by barges and planes that can only haul so much.  

For the state, the undertaking represents a major effort to help clean up remote villages, where products often go in but may never come out. Project managers plan to create action plans and prioritize needs in communities along coastal and near-coastal areas in Western Alaska and the Arctic. The plans will give villages and agencies more data as they seek funds to improve landfills, according to the project's web site.

A community that might rank high is Kwigillingok on the Bering Sea coast southwest of Bethel, a Yup'ik village of about 350 with a decades-old landfill along an eroding river. In recent summers, local crews have pulled on gloves and rain gear and yanked tons of trash from the muck, said Darrel John, the tribe's longtime environmental manager.

Heavy equipment can't reach the site because it sits across the so-called Dump River on squishy tundra. So workers toss the gunk into four-wheeler trailers and haul what they can some 200 feet or so back from the edge.

Spring flooding can spread the mess, lifting part of the waste into the river or resettling it elsewhere on the tundra. Locals worry about contaminants getting into the tomcod and herring they eat, or the ducks and geese that nest near the dump site, said John.

"We've discussed digging a trench and burying all the garbage," but there's a lot of waste because it's been there since about 1960. And with the permafrost continuing to melt, that won't stop nasty stuff like antifreeze or oil from spreading into the river.

Adding to the problem in Kwigillingok and more than 100 other villages, the landfills aren't lined because of an exemption for small Alaska communities granted by the Environmental Protection Administration. As a result, cash-strapped villages can create cheaper landfills  where trash is usually limited to household items, not industrial waste. But the system worked better when the ground was frozen solid. Now that permafrost is increasingly prone to melt, it doesn't always serve as a natural barrier.

State managers are studying conditions in about 150 villages, with help from a 2009 erosion report by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and a recently updated study on open dumps by the Indian Health Service. The list of villages state crews will visit over the next three years will be winnowed to 100 by summer, said Rebecca Colvin, outreach coordinator for the project.

"This will allow us to improve the current operations in villages and to make the community safer," Colvin said.

Contact Alex DeMarban at alex(at)alaskadispatch.com