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Village of Kivalina faces tight repair deadline

Posted: September 4, 2012 - 11:02pm

ANCHORAGE — Janet Mitchell figures the northwest Alaska village of Kivalina has three weeks at most before winter freeze-up begins, so no time is too soon to repair a three-mile pipeline that’s crucial to the fresh water supply in her tiny community.

“Once it starts freezing up, it’ll be difficult,” Mitchell, the Kivalina city administrator, said Tuesday.

Emergency crews plan to begin those repairs this week in a multi-entity effort, including the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium and the Northwest Arctic Borough.

Late summer storms flooded Kivalina’s landfill and damaged the community’s water system, which pulls drinking water by pipe from the nearby Wulik River. The pipe was broken in places and “some parts went out to sea,” Mitchell said.

The damage to the pipeline left the school and teacher housing without clean water. Two weeks after the school was scheduled to start, classes are still not being held in the Inupiat Eskimo community, 83 miles north of the Arctic Circle and 625 miles northwest of Anchorage.

School district officials hope to see the 130-student school open by Oct. 1.

School district superintendent Norm Eck said student counts conducted in October are used by the state to determine funding. Between students and teachers, the district stands to lose up to $4 million in state funding if the opening goal isn’t met, Eck said.

Meanwhile, both the village and the borough have declared a disaster in the village, and the borough is asking Gov. Sean Parnell to declare a disaster, which would free up state money to deal with the problem. State emergency management spokesman Jeremy Zidek said the governor’s cabinet will take up the issue on Wednesday, but ultimately a disaster declaration is the governor’s decision to make.

The borough’s disaster declaration immediately opened up $5,000 in emergency funds, said borough emergency manager Wendie Schaeffer, who is based in the regional hub town of Kotzebue, 80 miles southeast of Kivalina. The money has paid for such items as sending 6,000 pounds of safe drinking water to the community of 400. The borough also plans to hire a janitor to tend to health consortium workers who will be staying at the school during the repair project, Schaeffer said.

But that’s not nearly enough money to foot a hefty repair bill, so the borough would welcome backing from the state through a disaster declaration.

“It’s certainly what we hope for,” Schaeffer said. “I don’t know if the actual threshold has been met, but I hope so.”

The tribal health consortium, which is spearheading the project, is providing about $10,000 in parts including 3,000 feet of pipe. That’s not counting the cost of paying workers to come up with a workable system quickly before winter sets in, even if a more permanent fix isn’t tackled until later, said John Spriggs, the consortium’s tribal utility consultant.

“We’re dealing with a short window of opportunity,” he said.

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