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Rural Alaska village welcomes toilets, modern plumbing

Jill Burke, AlaskaDispatch -- Monday, October 17th, 2011

PITKAS POINT -- For the first time, villagers here are getting a chance to indulge in an everyday pleasantry most homes in America take for granted: hot baths, working toilets, on-demand water for the kitchen sink.

"The first time I flushed the toilet I got scared and ran out the door," 10-year-old Walter Sallison said about his introduction to the throne. More than anything, it's the noise that makes Sallison feel a little skittish. "I always get the butterflies," he said.

Sallison's home is one of nearly 30 in the small Yukon River community that recently had showers, tubs, toilets, and bathroom and kitchen sinks installed and connected to the city's new water treatment plant. His mom has made him and his sister take baths in the tub, something they are still getting used to. At least a few elders have pledged to keep using steam baths, a favored ritual that some contend is superior to a hot shower.

Rural sanitation is important to ensure people have safe drinking water and reduce their exposure to raw sewage, which can contain harmful bacteria. When honey buckets or their collection bunkers are full, raw sewage is easily spilled onto the street, often near where children play, causing village elders to worry about their health.

For households in the Lower 48, the concept of living without plumbing may seem like third-world conditions. Former Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles made this analogy himself in the mid 1990s when he vowed that by 2005 the five-gallon buckets villagers used to collect human waste - honey buckets - would be a thing of the past, artifacts for museums instead of peoples' homes.

Today, 46 of 250 Alaska villages -- some 18 percent -- remain without water and sewer systems. The Alaska Native Tribal Healthcare Consortium intends to bring water systems to 30 of those villages in 2012, but can only do so if the needed funding comes through.

The Pitkas Point project began in 2004 and took nearly $11 million to complete. It includes a water tank and water treatment plant, washeteria, two ground water wells, sewage cells, distribution pipes, wastewater collection and disposal, in-home plumbing and the installation of piped bathrooms and kitchens for every home. The United States Department of Agriculture, State of Alaska, Denali Commission and the Indian Health Service contributed funding.

Project organizers and villagers celebrated this turning point in Pitkas Point's history over a community lunch in late September. Buckets of cleaning products were handed out as door prizes and leaders of the Native village of Pitkas Point, population 109, made brief remarks.

"It took a while to sink in, but it's super," said Junior Riley, the Pitka's Point Village Council president. His brother, John, started the fight for clean water in the village more than 10 years ago, when a fuel spill from lines servicing the school was thought to have contaminated the existing well.

For many, including the Rileys, new plumbing is a welcome sight -- and an adjustment.

The first night his new bathroom was installed, John Riley took a hot bath. When he woke up the next morning, he couldn't remember where he had bathed. "It's hard to get used to," he said.

Younger children seem to be making the adjustment a little easier. Although 3-year-old Davis Kinegak was at first scared of the toilet, he's gotten used to it, according to Olga Tinker, his mom. But the new tub was something Davis and his older sister took to immediately. The kids went crazy when they first saw it, Tinker said, explaining that her children "love it."

At the September celebration, a representative from the Alaska Rural Utility Collaborative, which will help manage the new water plant, told the gathered crowd that homeowners will be charged $120 apiece for residential hook up. "You're going to have good water," he said. "We will make this a sustainable system to last a long time."

No one in Pitkas Point seems to be complaining that the honey bucket has finally become obsolete.

"It's awesome," said Natasha Lamont, a young mother from the village. "Everything is clean and washed. It's just wonderful."

For John Riley, the new system brings to an end a long personal journey. Earlier in his life he worked for a water and sewer company in the larger hub community of Bethel, and over nine years there saw nearly 200 homes get hooked up to water. He also picked up honey buckets from homes not yet connected. When the work ran out, Riley moved out and he headed for the Yukon.

"Now we've got water running for my village," he said. "My job's done."


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Used with permission from Jill Burke - Contact Jill Burke at jill@alaskadispatch.com

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