Noorvik (Nuurvik), population 636, is a mostly Inupiat community located on the right bank of the Nazuruk Channel and 47 miles east of Kotzebue. Residents heavily rely on their subsistence resources and land for their main diet, socioeconomic status, and community well-being. Protecting their environment and subsistence resources is a community- wide priority.
The local tribe, Noorvik Native Community (NNC), has a well-established environmental department that’s funded by US EPA Indian General Assistance Program (EPA IGAP) funds. This program establishes and oversees environmental protection in the community including recycling and ‘backhauling’. Besides aluminum cans, NNC’s environmental program collects electronics, household batteries, lead acid batteries and fluorescent bulbs, keeping these hazardous items out of their unlined Class III landfill. Because the landfill is unlined, toxic metals leach out and can potentially contaminate nearby land and water. Managing a successful collection program with good community participation removes that risk. However, like other off- road communities, storage space for accumulated waste is simply unavailable and too costly to expand. As a result, diverting these harmful materials from the landfill is just the first step in protecting the community. An often-difficult part is the logistics and cost of backhauling them out of the community to end-destinations that can recycle them responsibly.
To help bolster their backhaul program's infrastructure and safety, NNC applied and was selected in 2019 to participate in the Backhaul Alaska Pilot Program (Backhaul Alaska).
Backhaul Alaska assists with packaging supplies, training, logistics, shipping and disposal cost of three waste streams: lead acid batteries, fluorescent bulbs, and spent electronics. Although Backhaul Alaska postponed most backhaul operations NNC continued to operate locally, and Backhaul Alaska continued its partial monthly support stipend funded by Denali Commission and US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Environmental Justice Program.
Currently the Backhaul Alaska Pilot Program is targeting only electronics, lead-acid batteries, and fluorescent lamps – to maintain tight controls on the framework testing process. These materials were selected because they comprise over 95% of the toxic heavy metals in village waste streams. But in the future, the program will slowly expand to handle a wide range of waste materials using streamlined efficiencies from improved economy of scale and coordinated logistics, while continuing to use and seek partnering opportunities like the one featured here.
Along with 15 other communities, Noorvik was originally scheduled for backhaul in 2020, but due to concerns for community health during the pandemic, Backhaul Alaska pushed the backhaul pilot to the 2021 season. In June of 2021, BAPP and NNC were able to pick up where they left off. After a two-day site visit, Stephanie Mason (Zender Environmental) and Lonnie Tibbets (NCC’s Environmental Coordinator) along with a couple of volunteers managed to consolidate and package 8 pallets of spent electronics and 4 fish totes of lead acid batteries -- adding up to roughly 7,600 lbs. of hazardous materials.
NNC’s Environmental Coordinator participated in Backhaul Alaska’s virtual mandatory training in spring of 2020 and continued to receive training and technical assistance from Backhaul Alaska to support their local backhaul efforts and prepare them for program shipment come summer 2021. As with all Backhaul Alaska communities, Backhaul Alaska statewide and regional coordinators work closely with the NNCs team in providing regular, ongoing remote training and technical assistance to directly assist with developing a local hazardous waste management program that works for them. The one-on-one training is funded primarily by U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Association (PHMSA) and Bureau of Indian Affairs, via a Kawerak Inc. contract.
The site visit is an essential part of the Backhaul Alaska program. Backhaul staff from each pilot community go through an extensive 3-4 day backhaul training, which emphases on worker safety, emergency response, and compliance with DOT hazardous material regulations to ensure all backhaul materials are safely handled and transported from collection site all the way to their end destination. After being trained in Anchorage or a hub, each community receives a site visit by Backhaul Alaska staff to conduct training on-site, particular to the community's local setup. In that way, shippers and recyclers can trust that Backhaul Alaska labelled materials will be safe for their workers to transport and handle.
Backhaul Alaska partners with local, regional, and statewide entities to leverage any available good will opportunities. In Noorvik's case, on June 28, 2021, Drake Construction generously provided space on a barge returning from an upriver Kiana project. Backhaul Alaska funds (through DOT-PHSMA and BIA grants) covered the cost of transportation of Noorvik's materials to Kotzebue. Once the material arrived in Kotzebue, the Maniilaq Association, which operates a regional backhaul program, received the materials and consolidated them with other recyclables from other communities within the region. Ultimately, the Noorvik material was included in Maniilaq Association’s annual backhaul, where they sponsor the transportation and recycling of multiple containers (comprised of various recyclables) to approved vendor down South.
Noorvik continues to collect recyclables and anticipates backhauling more material in 2022. Next year, NNC is planning on expanding their collection this next year by purchasing a boat that will allow the Environmental Department to travel up and down river to collect lead acid batteries and electronics from fish camps in/near Noorvik. Backhaul Alaska's purpose is to provide ongoing logistical assistance and training so that communities can sustainably operate safe backhaul programs that serve their local needs. Subsistence camp cleanups are central to that mission and Backhaul Alaska will help to support the project. Backhaul Alaska is moving out of its pilot phase and into the full program for 2022. Each year, additional communities will be enrolled in the program, so that within a 10-year timeline, all interested communities will be able to participate.