Hooper Bay’s sewage lagoon has failed, spilling onto an area vital to local subsistence

Water flowing from a breach in an ice-covered sewage lagoon
A leak in the Hooper Bay sewer lagoon caused it to spill out onto the surrounding land on Feb. 25, 2022. (Photo courtesy of Sandra Tall-Lake/City of Hooper Bay)

The sewage lagoon in Hooper Bay began leaking early on the morning of Feb. 25. By the afternoon, the entirety of the community’s sewage had poured onto the surrounding tundra, threatening an important subsistence location for the coastal village. Community leaders are worried it could spread further and are calling upon the state for help.

The spill followed a sudden rise in warm temperatures in recent days. Hooper Bay Mayor Sandra Hill said the thaw and rain had melted the previously frozen land surrounding the sewage lagoon, causing a wall of the lagoon to cave.

Hill said that the sewage spill is around 500 feet north of the nearest resident’s home, in an area that is a vital source of subsistence foods for Hooper Bay’s approximately 1,100 residents.

“North of the village sits a slough where we usually fish. We go and gather greens from north of the village back there,” Hill said. “I’m worried about food security for our village.”

City employees were busy on Feb. 26 plowing the roads leading to the sewage lagoon to allow heavy machinery to reach the spill. But Hill said the city is unsure how it will fix the lagoon or clean up the spill once the machinery gets there.

“We are not engineers. We need engineers to help us,” Hill said.

The day of the spill, the City of Hooper Bay declared a state of emergency and reached out to the Alaska State Emergency Operations Center for assistance.

The following day, Gov. Mike Dunleavy issued a state disaster declaration for the village of Hooper Bay, which Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management spokesperson Jeremy Zidek said would allow Hooper Bay to get reimbursed for their response efforts.

Zidek said that the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation would be working with the community to fix the broken walls of the lagoon. He said cleaning up the spill could take months, and that Hooper Bay will have to try to deal with the situation locally before the community can turn to the state for help.

But Hill said it was already clear that Hooper Bay would not be able to clean up the spill on its own. And she was worried it could spread quickly with temperatures above freezing this week.

In addition to cleaning up the spill, Hooper Bay will also need to stop it from getting bigger. As of Feb. 26, Hill said that the breach in the sewage lagoon had not been fixed, and any resident that flushed their toilet or ran their faucet would likely add to the spill on the tundra.

Hill said half of Hooper Bay is connected to piped water and sewer, and she said that city officials are considering asking those residents to stop running their water and switch to using honey buckets until the breach in the lagoon is contained.

This is the second disaster declaration the governor has issued this month to aid a Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta community. In mid-February, the governor issued a disaster declaration to make state funding available to help the coastal community of Tununak after its washateria burned down.

KYUK - Bethel

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