Crew melts 100 feet of ice to reach Bethel schools’ well

Kuskokwim Learning Academy in Bethel, AK. (Photo by Dean Swope/KYUK)
Kuskokwim Learning Academy in Bethel, AK. (Photo by Dean Swope/KYUK)

The ice blocking an essential well for Bethel schools has finally cracked. Officials discovered the frozen well in September and spent almost a month thawing the impasse. Water is now pumping, but the well still isn’t in the clear.

Maintenance crews spent 20 days melting 100 feet of ice, never knowing when the blockage would end. To prevent the school from closing, they began buying hauled water from the city.

James Mikesell is the plant facilities manager for the Lower Kuskokwim School District and oversees the districts’ water.

“We were going down and down every day. But 100 feet is an awful long way. The unknown, all battling the unknown is really the issue here,” said Mikesell.

He does not know why the well froze, but to prevent it from happening again, they have extended about 400 feet of heat tape through the well. Heat tape often runs through sewer lines to prevent freezing.

The well is pumping, but the school is relying on hauled water from the city until they get back results from water samples sent in for testing.

The well feeds two Bethel schools, a set of dorms and a kitchen that prepares all the meals for every school in Bethel. It started showing problems last month. Then the water just stopped.

Maintenance crews thought the well’s pipe had corroded and silt had collapsed through the casing until Mikesell discovered something odd.

“We put some heat down there with some heat tape and melted, and it started going down. I’m going, well sand doesn’t do that; solid ground doesn’t do that,” said Mikesell.

The well had frozen.

Mikesell said no one in the district had seen this problem before, so he and his crew started experimenting with different heating tools and water pumps. The ice melted only a few feet a day, and the deeper they went, the slower it melted.

They had no idea how deep the ice ran.

The blockage started about 100 feet below ground and the well extends about 450 feet.

“So we were just coming up with different methods to do this,” said Mikesell. “You might have been 6 inches away. There’s no way to tell.”

There was another issue. The most efficient tool for thawing a frozen pipe, according to Mikesell, is a high-pressure jetter, a machine that blasts warm water through the well. But the school’s jetter was broken.

The Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation caught wind of the dilemma and offered to loan the school its jetter.

“And no sooner than we had it basically on its way over to the site, we broke through,” said Mikesell. “And the pump just went zoom! It went down, and we go

‘We’re through! We’re done!’”

Mikesell hopes the school will return to well water by Wednesday.

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