“Forgotten America: Rural Alaska Problems and Solutions”


Sep 19, 2009

Mr. Crawford, thank you for your thoughtful commentary Creating a new vision for housing in Alaska in the “My Turn” opinion  section of the Juneau Empire.   I’ve tried to correlate your work to an article I read recently titled  “Forgotten America, Rural Alaska Problems and Solutions”.

Like much of rural Alaska, the people of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta region of Western Alaska have great needs.  In anticipation of the arrival last month of the secretaries of the U.S. Departments of Energy, Housing and Urban Development, Education, Interior, and Agriculture on their “Rural Tour”, the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation, Calista Corporation, and the Association of Village Council Presidents (AVCP) prepared a comprehensive study, “Forgotten America: Rural Alaska Problems and Solutions”.

“Forgotten America” presents some of the long-standing social and economic challenges in rural Alaska related to critical needs in housing, health, infrastructure, energy, green jobs, climate change and the subsistence economy.  The publication addresses, individually, the various Departments of Agriculture, Education, Energy, Housing and Urban Development, and the Interior.  Each area of concern is presented not only as a statement of critical issues in this region, but is followed with specific recommendations requesting help.  The citizens of this region respectfully urge the cabinet members to hear their comments, understand their difficulties, and effect needed changes in Washington to improve the lives of the Alaskan people.

While similar points are brought up from one section to another, and discussion often overlaps among the various departments, one of the more comprehensive areas might be focused in Housing and Urban Development, pages 12-15.

A couple of things stand out here.  AVCP Housing Authority is a nonprofit organization that serves the AVCP region in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.  It builds between 25-50 homes annually and modernizes/repairs about 250 more annually.  The authority spends about $8.7 million in new housing construction per summer, plus another $3.75 million for modernization projects, thus a total of about $12.45 million goes to summer work projects in its villages.

Today, according to the AVCP, about 3,500 new, safe homes are needed in the Y-K Delta region alone.  At a cost of about $250,000-300,000 per 3-bedroom house, the estimated funding needed to resolve this housing crisis in the Y-K Delta ranges from about $800 million to about $1 billion.  At the current rate of funding each year, around $10 million, “…it will take 105 years to build these 3,500 homes.  AVCP Housing, and other housing authorities in rural Alaska, need larger amounts of annual funding to meet the housing needs of rural Alaska in a more timely fashion.  The health and well-being of Native Alaskans living in villages continues to be in jeopardy because of substandard housing and overcrowded conditions.”

Further attention addresses what few numbers of rural Y-K Delta villages have water and sewer services in the form of piped water, even though Alaska receives an unspecified amount of funding from the federal government for these improvements.  Hundreds, maybe thousands, of rural people use 5-gallon paint buckets as toilets, then laboriously haul the contents out near the village to be dumped into an open “sewage lagoon” or “bunker”, which, of course, does not meet even minimum standards for health and safety.  The villages need “adequate funding to develop and implement Solid Waste Management Plans that will plan for the closure and rehabilitation of existing dump sites, develop hazardous waste programs, eliminate honey buckets, and construct new, safe landfills.”

More discussion continues about the region’s homes and buildings being poorly insulated, the delivery each summer of expensive diesel fuel barged upriver to the remote villages to provide winter heat and year-round electricity, and often inefficient and outdated appliances used to heat substandard houses.  Also addressed is the extremely long wait-list for an energy audit by one of only 2 Energy Raters for all homes in the far-reaching expanses of the region in order to get some critically needed help weatherizing the great numbers of substandard housing.

The regional residents clearly know what their housing needs are, and their recommendations to the cabinet members are:  “Create jobs in villages by providing funding to train village staff to be Energy Raters as well as Weatherization/Energy Conservation Technicians that specialize in building construction and energy savings technologies.  Additionally provide funds that can be used to develop a revolving loan program to make home improvements since many families are unable to purchase energy efficiencies without assistance…”

Further discussion addresses the melting of the permafrost in the global warming of the region, thereby damaging building infrastructures.  Due to widespread poverty of the region, untreated lumber lies at the foundation of much of the substandard housing and now rots faster than in the past due to rising global temperatures.  Beetles and carpenter ants further damage the untreated lumber and make the houses less stable.  Problems with mold erupt as home integrity fails. The Y-K Delta groups request that AVCP receive “sufficient funds to level 1,743 Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program homes over a 3 year period at a cost of $6,000 per home.  Five hundred eighty-one homes per year will be leveled which will create numerous regional job opportunities.”

I encourage all AB readers to take a few minutes to look at this document.  The regional residents clearly explain their issues of concern, know what they need, and urgently request help from our federal leaders.  You might even ponder, as I do, for what period of time, for how many years, have these same requests been made by the people, then ignored by all levels of governments–local, state and federal?

“Every year, an assessment of the sanitation needs of Native Americans across the country is completed for the Indian Health Service…the estimated 2009 total sanitation needs of Alaska’s Native Villages is 429 projects with a cost of $736 million for their completion. It does appear that development of water and sewer services in the Y-K Delta is deliberately delayed, while the rest of Alaska communities have been enjoying water and sewer services for decades.” (page 13)


I’d love to see a correlation of how many Alaskan prisoners are housed in facilities with hot and cold running water, with access to hot showers, three meals a day, and flush toilets, and compare their numbers to the thousands of peaceful, law-abiding Alaskans toting nasty honey buckets to open sewage lagoons year-round, often in zero temperatures.   Does that strike you, like it does me, as JUST PLAIN WRONG?

If you are interested, photos of the Rural Tour’s day’s trip to Bethel, AK, in August can be found at http://www.adn.com/2009/08/12/896115/rural-tour.html.

If you’d like to read the USDA press secretary’s follow-up, written after the cabinet members’ Alaska rural tour, see Rural Tour visits Alaska.


8 Responses to ““Forgotten America: Rural Alaska Problems and Solutions””

  1. alaskapi Says:

    The Alaska Dispatch put a village and it’s names and faces to these concerns with one of the stories they ran when the secretaries visited


  2. UgaVic Says:

    Having seen at least one village in this area that is just now, in 2009, finally seeing piped in water and sewer available to it homes makes you realize HOW far we still need to come in this 21ST CENTURY!!

    If you think how your personal standards/habits would change if you did not have access to these basic service, I believe each of us would not stand for it.

    The incidents of sickness that comes from this lack of services is borderline of third world countries.

    There are many issues that are involved in the getting of services to villages on a timely basis. Tribal and village councils have to answer for some of it but also our state and federal governments.

    I also urge each AB reader to view this report and do some question asking of your own. We have our work cut out for ourselves and it will not be easy to hold ALL parties accountable.

  3. alaskapi Says:

    Safe housing, safe water, safe sewage…
    Reasonable expectations for ALL Americans.

    Attainable… not attained, but attainable…

    “Lifewater Engineering Company developed ExtremeSTPs for use in permafrost areas where septic and other subsurface systems commonly perform poorly or not at all. ExtremeSTPs are available in many above ground and below ground models for residential and commercial uses.”

    Basic sanitation is one of the single most important things we can offer ourselves and our children.
    It is alarming that too many places in rural Alaska have been left without the basics…


    It is a no brainer , to me, that we use our understanding of what roadblocks to success in life poor surroundings create to give all our neighbors a better healthier chance to thrive.

  4. elsie09 Says:

    Visualize your own babies when you read this:
    “Lack of modern water service in Alaska is associated with high pediatric lower respiratory tract infection incidence (Alaska Division of Public Health, May 208).” (p. 13, “Forgotten America”).

    “Water for washing has to be obtained in buckets from local watering points or lakes and streams and brought home to be stored in a container, often a “clean” 30-gallon plastic trash can or washed-out 55 gallon “drum” once used for fuel or chemical storage. For washing, water is dipped with a pitcher by a household member and poured into a wash basin, which results in contamination of the wash water or drinking water container (Source: Office of Environmental Health, Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corporation).”

    How many incarcerated Alaskans today are forced to go to a central spigot in their prison or jail yard somewhere, in all kinds of weather, to carry water back to their cell, and then dip their water out of an old tub or “clean” trash can for washing and drinking? Would that be legal, according to their civil rights?

    My guess is no; that’s probably not the level of health service required of prisoners in Alaska. So, your run-of-the-mill rapist, murderer, wife-beater, etc., is protected under the law with running water, flush toilets, and no open sewage lagoons?

    Yet, it IS legal for rural Alaskans. It’s legal that more of THEIR children, than other families, suffer lower respiratory tract infections due to lack of modern water service. It’s legal to live in communities where occasional floods mix with the sewage lagoons and contaminate everything in the path of the floods. When was the last time you heard of incarcerated populations dealing with THAT?

  5. elsie09 Says:

    The front page photo of “Forgotten America” shows a villager “tossing out the slop”, that is, dumping his family’s honey bucket into the Ninglick River at the village of Newtok last fall. The Yukon is 2300 miles long. How many households of untreated waste have been dumped into that river by the time it reaches the Bering Sea at the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta?

    I don’t understand why anyone would take a bucket of human waste and toss it into a river. But obviously it is done; the photo is proof.

  6. Martha Unalaska Yard Sign Says:

    The Yukon is a long river system that has many opportunities to carry both natural and human sourced pollution along its path. The Yukon is mighty, but so are the Great Lakes and we made a mess of those.

  7. tom Says:

    Rural Alaskans like the frontier life thats why they are there. I am from alaska and I have never heard of anyone using 55 gal fuel drums for water and for doing your business in a 5 gal drum, maybe at the camp site. People do have out houses and have to find clean sources of water but it is not as bad as you think. If you don’t like that kind of life style you might want to stay in your city.

  8. alaskapi Says:

    You don’t say where in Alaska you come from or when …

    Yes, there are folks who choose to live away from others, who have made the choice to live a “frontier life” , who have outhouses and all, who are comfortable with a spartan lifestyle in exchange for peace and quiet.

    However, the things you say you never heard about exist in many, many villages … these things are well documented and photographed.
    Thousands of people live this way…

    Thousands of people who were born and raised in the bush…
    Who didn’t start in a city…
    Who have had many, many promises that they will enjoy the health benefits clean drinking water and proper sanitation bring to communities…
    Communities which exist around schools for their children, mail service, supply drops, churches…
    These are not isolated families, these are towns…

    And tom- while only accepting what comes across your own bow works moderately well in everyday life it is insufficient and inefficient when applied to the whole world which we personally do not experience…
    Thirty some years ago I made a choice to “hear about” at least one thing which wasn’t right in my own personal line of sight per day…
    (As I don’t have much imagination , I often miss even things which are in the same room with me.)
    When I tote up the 30+yrs x 365 days of finding other ideas, information, views of things/yr I realize I have more tools for seeing and understanding than my natural style provides for AND am better able to understand even everyday things which run across my personal horizon…
    This is a long, roundabout way of trying to say nicely that because you haven’t heard about something doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, my friend.

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