In rural Alaska, school districts deal with a legacy of unaddressed contamination

A boy bicycles through town on Wednesday, April 2, in Bethel, Alaska. The Lower Kuskokwim School District, headquartered in Bethel, has shipping containers full of contaminated materials that have been there for years, waiting to be barged out. (Photos by Rashah McChesney/Alaska’s Energy Desk)

There are thousands of open contaminated sites in Alaska. Typically, when one is discovered, it’s up to the landowner — or the person responsible for making the mess — to clean it up. But there are dozens of sites where this process has broken down — where it isn’t clear who owned the property when it was polluted, who caused the pollution and who should pay to clean it up.

It’s especially a problem in rural Alaska, where remote sites can cost millions to remediate.

Lower Kuskokwim School District Maintenance Director Jeff Harris is intimately familiar with the problem — his district has seven open contaminated sites where state regulators have flagged it as either potentially or entirely responsible for cleanup.

On an uncharacteristically warm, dusty spring day at his office in the school district’s Bethel headquarters, he offers an unorthodox tour of some school district property.

So, from the massive cab of one of the district’s beefy Dodge trucks, we go for a bumpy drive along the city’s unpaved roads. Bethel isn’t a big town. It has about 16 total miles of road. But still, it’s surprising to drive down Fifth Avenue and come across a block of brightly-colored shipping containers.

“This is the ugly part of LKSD,” Harris said. “So we’ve got more containers, all the Super Sacks — ” he pauses and turns, pointing across the road. Behind a chain-link fence is a cluster of dilapidated, 10,000-gallon fuel tanks. “And these are the fuel tanks that we removed from villages so we could get rid of them.”

A row of shipping containers full of contamination from a fire sit along Fifth Avenue on Wednesday, April 2, in Bethel, Alaska. The containers have been there for four years, waiting to be shipped out of the community — but the Lower Kuskokwim School District faces several barriers to completing that task.

The Lower Kuskokwim School District is the largest of its kind in Alaska. It’s a Rural Education Attendance Area — think of it as a type of borough created specifically for rural education — spanning 22,000 square miles of tundra and 27 schools. A lot of times, when contaminated junk is removed from one of those village schools — it makes a pit stop at district headquarters in Bethel.

The containers that we’re looking at hold the remnants of a Yup’ik immersion school that burned down in Bethel in 2016.

“It was like, dirt from the fire. So it’s contaminated with broken wood and that kind of stuff,” he said.

There’s another row of shipping containers just like it a few blocks away right outside of the high school. Those have everything from darkroom chemicals to asbestos in them.

Harris said you can’t just take all of this stuff over to the dump. And there aren’t a lot of ways to get out of town. You could fly. Or, as is the case with these containers, take a boat.

A row of shipping containers used to store contaminated material near Bethel High School.

They have to be barged about 50 miles down the Kuskokwim River where it empties into a bay and, eventually, the Bering Sea. From there, it’s thousands of miles to the closest landfill that will take them. It gets expensive.

Three years ago, Harris said he shipped one container of dried biosolids — that’s code for treated sewage — from a village downriver.

That one shipping container, wedged onto a barge and transported from Tuntutuliak to Oregon? It cost $15,000.

Now, facing this long row of containers — the scale of the school district’s problem starts to comes into focus. Each container has to be cataloged — getting contaminants into a landfill can be a tricky proposition. Usually, the landowner wants to know what they’re disposing of before they agree to take it on.

And Bethel — a town of about 6,000 people — doesn’t exactly have the biggest landfill.

You know if you live in New York City you just take all this stuff in a truck and take it to Staten Island and they’d put it down, drive over it 10 times with the biggest bulldozer in the world. Problem solved. You can’t do that in a landfill here. We can’t really do that in the landfill because landfill is tiny,” Harris said.

Even if the landfill in Bethel could take all of the biosolids the district has to get rid of, it isn’t set up to take other types of contamination, like asbestos or petroleum-contaminated dirt from leaking fuel tanks.

“It’s all supposed to go away, but where do you make it go away to?” he said. “It’s a big problem. Logistically, it’s a big problem.”

Lower Kuskokwim School District Maintenance Director Jeff Harris near a row of shipping containers full of contaminated materials the district needs to ship out of town.

Harris said millions of dollars could go toward getting rid of all of the school district’s contaminated waste.

Most of the sites that state regulators say the school district is responsible for cleaning up are former schools that the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, or BIA, operated before turning them over to the state’s Department of Education and Early Development decades ago.

They aren’t used as schools anymore. But they are contaminated. Usually it’s the old tank farms, leaching petroleum contaminants into the surrounding soil. They’re rotting in small villages — in some cases, near drinking water wells — or eroding into rivers or just a few feet away from buildings where children are going to school.

The village Harris mentioned, Tuntutuliak, has a bigger problem than just one shipping container of sewage. One of the sites that the state flagged as a high priority is a BIA school that was built in the late 1950s.

It’s a short flight downriver from Bethel to the small village. The Yup’ik native village is in the middle of the tundra — so that means scattered lakes and wetlands. Many of the buildings and homes in the village sit along an elevated wooden boardwalk. It’s something of a four-wheeler superhighway when school lets out.

Mark Olick races out on one to meet the plane. Then we go for a ride through town. First to the new school. Then to a collection of abandoned buildings sitting between homes along the river.

Mark Olick, Tuntutuliak school maintenance man.

Olick has lived in the village for 48 years. He points to the rotting wood where steps used to lead from the boardwalk to the front entrance. He remembers walking up those steps when he went to first grade in 1979. He remembers when the river wasn’t lapping at the edge of the boardwalk.

“That bank was 200 yards away,” he said, pointing to an eroding river bank that’s maybe 50 feet from the buildings.

He doesn’t remember why they closed the old school. He thinks maybe the village outgrew it. He also doesn’t remember anyone ever telling him that the area is contaminated.

There are no signs or fencing up. Just a pile of empty, rusting fuel tanks nearby that smell faintly of the thousands of gallons of fuel they used to hold.

Old heating fuel tanks sit near an abandoned former Bureau of Indian Affairs school in Tuntutuliak.

He offers a ride over to Tuntutuliak Tribal Council President Henry Lupie’s house.

Lupie meets us on the boardwalk outside of his home and offers up his toasty living room as a good place to talk.

“You want a cup of coffee?” he says, grinning.

Lupie has a long memory, so over several bitter black cups, Lupie recounts decades of history around the old school — the 35-year struggle the village has had over the school.

Like Olick, Lupie has lived in this village his entire life, though he left for a few years to go to boarding school in Oregon. He taught in the old BIA school and remembers when it was closed in the 1980s.

The community still used it though. When the wood came in for a new church, they stored it in the old school to keep it dry. Even now, Lupie says, the community put plywood up to try and keep people out of them.

“But still, kids get into abandoned buildings. That’s pretty natural I guess.” He laughs.

Tuntutuliak Tribal Council President Henry Lupie talks about the village’s efforts to get a contaminated site remediated.

At first, they thought they could reuse the old buildings. But when it became clear that the site was contaminated, Lupie says the village tried to get it cleaned up.

“The problem at first was, we couldn’t identify who was responsible,” he said. “We thought it was BIA at first, when we contacted BIA, they said they transferred it to the state, and the state said they didn’t have any responsibility because it was an old BIA site.”

So the buildings just sit there, rotting. Sinking into the marshy land along the Quinak River.

State records show a tangle of people from the federal and state government, village corporation and the Lower Kuskokwim School District weighing in on what should be done with the school for the last 41 years.

And at least three times, people have come out to the village to do environmental assessments of the old property. They’ve found evidence of fuel spills and contamination. Arsenic and chromium. There’s asbestos in the buildings.

More than a decade ago, the site was added to the state’s contaminated sites database. But no state or federal agency took responsibility for cleaning it up.

To understand how a contaminated site in a village like Tuntutuliak might get lost in the shuffle, it’s helpful to understand the scale of the contamination problem statewide.

“We have about 2,300 active contaminated sites. So at any given time we can be we can be trying to make decisions on a site that’s anywhere in the state,” said Eric Breitenberger. He’s an environmental program manager at the Department of Environmental Conservation.

He’s been working for the state, specifically with pollution, for nearly 20 years.

He lays out what’s supposed to happen when a site lands in the state’s contaminated sites database. State environmental regulators become detectives of a sort. They try to find out everything they can about the area: Who’s living near it? How do they use it? Who owned it? Who’s responsible for the contamination — the person who’s supposed to pay to clean it up?

And how dangerous is that site to the people living there? Answering that question involves a very complicated, kind of depressing flowchart. There are all of these branches — if/then questions involving the soil, air and groundwater. Does it affect the food? Each site gets an exposure ranking. It’s essentially a snapshot of how dangerous it is for the community around it.

Ideally, a responsible party is found. They pay to figure out the extent of the damage to the site. They tell the state how they’re going to clean it up. They clean it up — and the site gets closed.

But there are contaminated sites in Alaska that have been open for 10, 20, 30 years. How could that happen?

“Yeah, that’s an awkward question. And we spend a lot of time working with sites like that,” he said. “There are a lot of sites in our database that have been there for a really long time. Part of the reason for that … I’ll kind of use an analogy: It’s the picking of the low-hanging fruit.”

In the case of Tuntutuliak, regulators just haven’t been able to pin down who should pay to clean it up.

Children play after school in Tuntutuliak. Village residents have been living alongside a contaminated former Bureau of Indian Affairs school for decades.

The Lower Kuskokwim School District operated the school, but the state’s Department of Education and Early Development technically owns the land. The fuel releases, at least some of them, happened while the Bureau of Indian Affairs was in control of the buildings. Each has been flagged as potentially responsible for helping to pay for cleanup.

But those negotiations haven’t happened. In part because there hasn’t been much — if any — response from BIA.

Breitenberger — and other contaminated site managers — say that’s pretty common. BIA has been reluctant to engage with the state on sites it may eventually be responsible for cleaning up.

A big part of the holdup with a lot of legacy contaminated sites is that the responsible party is supposed to pay for everything. In the case of Tuntutuliak, it’s going to be expensive.

A few years ago, the state’s Department of Education got another environmental assessment done — adding up all of the costs of tearing down the buildings, digging up contaminated soil and barging everything out. It estimated more than $900,000 to clean it up.

All of this back and forth, and no action? Back in Tuntutuliak, Lupie says it feels like the village is not a priority for the state and federal agencies tasked with environmental oversight. And that feels hypocritical.

“Our village corporation has tank farms, and if there’s an oil spill, it would be our responsibility to clean it up. We’d be faced with penalties,” he said. “What I can’t understand is, you know, for the federal government — BIA is part of the federal government — and they are imposed with the same laws and regulation that we’re expected to follow … I keep wondering, why doesn’t it apply to themselves? You know, it’s supposed to work the same way.”

A row of shipping containers used to store contaminated material near Bethel High School.

And in the end, there’s been a workaround in Tuntutuliak. One that doesn’t require the school district, or the state, or the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, to claim responsibility for the contamination.

The school district applied for a grant from the state’s Department of Education to expand the new school in Tuntutuliak. Part of that money will go toward cleaning up the old contaminated one — which, by the way, is scheduled to be demolished by 2021.

A full 13 years since it landed in the state’s contaminated sites database.

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