Researchers ponder the fate
of village dump toxins
By NED ROZELL
February 12, 2010
More than 200 villages are spread throughout Alaska, many of
them on river systems and low-lying tundra with permafrost beneath
it. These conditions have contributed to the problems many villages
have with waste disposal; village dumps are often sprawling mounds
of garbage spilling into ponds or sloughs. A University of Alaska
Fairbanks graduate student is sampling the water and soil around
village dumps to see how, or if, pollutants are migrating into
the surrounding environment.
Edda Mutter samples
water from the dump of an Alaska village.
Photo by Doug Huntman, Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.
This column is provided
as a public service by the Geophysical
Institute, University of Alaska Fairbanks, in cooperation
with the UAF research community.
Edda Mutter visited seven villages in rural Alaska last summer.
She talked to people there and then pulled on her rubber boots
and heavy raingear, even though it wasn't raining. She then walked
through village dumps and collected water and soil samples. She
found elevated levels of aluminum in the water samples from all
seven communities (the civic leaders of which don't want the
village names published), along with high levels of E. coli and
It's a dirty job ("I make sure I don't set down my backpack
just anywhere," Mutter said), but she's hoping to track
the fate of toxic substances disposed of in village dumps.
"I want to figure out what's there, and how these pollutants
behave," she said. "Do they stay in the soil, or bind
with water? How will things change with a warmer climate and
more permafrost degradation?"
In a study performed by Zender Environmental in 2003, Lynn Zender
wrote that 72 percent of village dumps are within about one mile
of homes, and at least 30 percent are within one-quarter mile
of homes. More than 56 percent of village dumps are seasonally
flooded, and 34 percent of dumps are one-quarter mile from a
village drinking-water source. About half of isolated Native
villages use honey bucket systems, where people carry toilet
waste from their homes in five-gallon buckets lined with plastic
bags. They often dump the honey bucket contents at the same dumpsite
as everything else.
"At some sites, everything goes into the hole," Mutter
Mutter is from a village in Germany about the size of some she
is visiting in Alaska. She and her project collaborators at the
University of Alaska Anchorage and the Rural Alaska Community
Action Program have gotten funding from the U.S. Department of
Agriculture, the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S.
Geological Survey. Her Ph.D. advisor, Bill Schnabel, the director
of the Water and Environmental Research Center at UAF, said Mutter's
project is the first step of a long-term plan to see what problems
exist in solid waste pollution in village Alaska and what solutions
might be workable there.
"How much of a problem do we really have?" he said.
"Do we have noxious material getting into the water and
soil? As researchers, we're attempting to get in there and get
some of these answers. Is this a human or environmental health
problem, or is it simply an aesthetic issue?" Mutter will
return to the villages this summer for another round of sampling.
She said people she has met there want answers.
"I was fascinated with how much help I got in the communities,"
Mutter said. "Some people would go out and help me collect
(samples) at the dump site. They're concerned about where to
hunt and pick berries. Sometimes, the most beautiful berries
are around the dumpsites."
Ned Rozell [email@example.com]
is a science writer at the institute.
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