Literally millions of tourists have visited Alaska, a state which is over twice the size of Texas. While many have seen the southeast region and the southcentral corridor stretching from Fairbanks through Anchorage and south to the Kenai Peninsula, relatively few have visited southwest and Interior Alaska, home to many small, predominantly Native villages. These communities have faced numerous challenges, not the least of which is effective trash and waste disposal. It is expensive to haul the needs of daily life into a community, and also expensive to remove those items after they have reached the end of their usefulness.
In many cases the water table is mere inches below the surface of the ground, there is a lot of wind, rain and snow. In the winter the temperatures fall to far below zero and in the summer it can get up to 90.
Working with partners including the Denali Commission, the Environmental Protection Agency, the State and non-profit groups like the Yukon River Intertribal Watershed Council (YRIWC), USDA Rural Development is making a difference in rural Alaska sanitation efforts.
Through the Solid Waste Management Grant program, USDA has provided support to groups including the Alaska Forum, the Rural Alaska Community Action Program, the Tanana Chiefs Council and the YRIWC. These funds are used to train managers in how to handle and remove hazardous materials before they reach landfills, manage waste disposal systems, and provide villages with technical assistance. With USDA support, the YRIWC has worked with barge operators to “back haul” junk vehicles, batteries and other recylable materials from villages.
Much more is also being accomplished. In the past, some rural Alaska landfills have been nothing more than a place to haul and drop all manner of trash. Wild animals, including bears, were attracted to the dumps, creating a physical danger. Smoke from uncontrolled burning was not only dangerous to inhale, the fires sometimes spread to the surrounding grasslands. Now, working with our partners including the Alaska Forum, USDA is taking steps to assist Native communities in managing waste.
Burn boxes, fabricated in Alaska with local labor, are being provided to rural communities. One of them is Tununak, a community of over 300 on the northwest side of Nelson Island in the Bering Sea. In addition to the burn box, the community also has received hazardous waste storage equipment and safety gear to reduce toxicity of the smoke and ash settlement on the nearby river. Because of the assistance, solid waste volume at the dumpsite has been reduced by 80 percent, waste is managed, and hazardous waste, including lead acid batteries, is being segregated. Because of this equipment, public heath is protected, environmental quality is improving and the community realized a sense of empowerment through the success of the effort.
To learn more about USDA’s Solid Waste Management Grant program click here.