Alaska

Science for Sustainable and Healthy Tribes

Crossposted from EPA’s Leadership blog.

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy

By EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy

Yesterday I signed the Policy on Environmental Justice for Working with Federally Recognized Tribes and Indigenous Peoples, which clarifies how EPA works with federally and state recognized tribes, indigenous community-based grassroots organizations, and other indigenous peoples to address their environmental and public health concerns.

American Indian communities have been inextricably tied to the natural environment for generations. From cultural identify to sustenance, many of those unique traditions endure. That’s why I’m so excited about the six tribal environmental health research grants to tribal communities and universities that we recently announced.

EPA is proud to have a long and rich history of supporting environmental and public health protection for all communities. These EPA supported grants will increase our knowledge of the threats posed by climate change and indoor air pollution, while incorporating traditional ecological knowledge to reach culturally appropriate and acceptable adaptation strategies to address these threats.

There is a unique need for tribal-focused research to identify those climate-related impacts and to reduce associated health and ecological risks. EPA has been actively engaged in supporting such research, and I’m thrilled EPA is providing grants to further that work. The grants will support the study of the impacts of climate change and indoor air pollution on tribal health and way of life. Grantees include:

  • The Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium located in Anchorage, Alaska will be looking at ways to assess, monitor, and adapt to the threats of a changing climate to the sustainability of food and water in remote Alaska native villages.
  • The Swinomish Indian Tribal Community in La Conner, Washington will be examining coastal climate impacts to traditional foods, cultural sites, and tribal community health and well-being.
  • Yurok Tribe in Klamath, California will be identifying, assessing, and adapting to climate change impacts to Yurok water and aquatic resources, food security and tribal health.
  • Little Big Horn College in Crow Agency, Montana will research climate change adaptation and waterborne disease prevention on the Crow Reservation.
  • The University of Tulsa in Tulsa, Oklahoma, will examine ways to improve indoor air quality and reduce environmental asthma triggers in tribal homes and schools.
  • The University of Massachusetts-Amherst in Amherst, Massachusetts will measure indoor air quality in tents as related to wood smoke exposures and identify potential health risks in remote subsistence hunting communities in North America.

The health of our communities depends upon the health of our environment. These grants will help build prosperous and resilient tribal communities both now and for future generations. Like the enduring memories of my tour of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation and tribal environmental program in North Dakota, they will have an impact long after my service as EPA Administrator.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Environmental Job Training Reaches Rural Alaska

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Map Illustrating Where the Diverse Geographic Areas that Alaska Indigenous Groups Live

By Lynn Zender

At the Zender Environmental Health and Research group, our vision of environmental justice is rooted in the philosophy that solutions must rely on community-based participatory efforts. We are a small non-profit organization based in Anchorage, Alaska and primarily serve what are arguably the most remote communities in the United States— the approximately 180 rural Alaska Native villages off the State’s road system. These Villages of 50 to 1,000 people can be reached only via small plane from one of the regional hubs.  The lack of trained technicians that can address and mitigate the severe solid waste conditions and risks presented at waste disposal sites is a major issue here, as are the very poor economies and lack of income to sustain environmental programs.

And that’s exactly why EPA’s Environmental Workforce Development and Job Training (EWDJT) grant program has been so helpful for us. This grant program helps low income and minority communities with unemployed or severely under-employed populations gain the skills needed to obtain employment in the environmental field.  This EPA grant program melded perfectly with the issues we are working on. Recently, our organization was very fortunate to receive funding from this EPA grant program to develop our Rural Alaska Community Job Training Program (RACEJT).

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RACEJT students receiving instruction during a metal salvaging tour.

RACEJT is unique because we train residents for work in their home villages, which helps prevent rural “brain drain” and erosion of community integrity.  Gaining several certifications related to hazardous materials handling and job safety means that students can be hired by contractors that manage site cleanup, water hookup, landfill, road, facility renovation and other environmental projects. Without these skills, villages are forced to hire contractors with their own crews and the local Alaska Native economies gain virtually nothing from these projects.

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RACEJT student geared for oil spill response training.

Over 88% of RACEJT graduates have been able to find permanent or part-time work.  In both cases, we’ve learned that any income can make the difference and help families retain their lifestyles and continue to live within their ancestral lands.  In these traditional hunting and fishing villages, a day of work can pay for gas to allow a hunter to provide moose, seal, caribou, or other game for his or her family and community, and for artists to search for ivory and other traditional materials used in making creations that they are able to sell and support their family.

One of the beauties of RACEJT is how many of our students gain self-esteem and confidence by succeeding in completing our rigorous program. Many graduates have found back their ways after stumbling on alcohol and other hardships that are all too common in rural villages.  Another lesson we’ve learned is the need to frame the program and students’ responsibilities in the context of Alaska Native cultures.  We invite Elders and other Alaskan Native mentors to evening dinners who offer great praise and encouragement to students working hard to return and help their community protect health and the subsistence way of life.

To those of us who manage the program, each student is a hero for taking on their challenging village environmental health problems, and we let them know it. Students like Brandon Tocktoo, David Olanna, Eric Alexie, and Brandon Willams have returned to their councils and educated their communities about the serious health risks posed by their open burning and uncontrolled dumps.  Chad and Garret Anelon, and Kenneth Charlie have gone back to their villages and instigated infrastructural improvements in their environmental programs. Kacey John has helped to clean up contaminated soil at her school and weatherized homes. Harvey Nusingaya has led the tank farm maintenance for his Tribal Corporation’s oil development program.  All of these students and many more are able to continue their customary and traditional practices and thus contribute to their community’s subsistence and wellness.

About: Lynn Zender is the Director of RACEJT, and Executive Director of Anchorage–based Zender Environmental Health and Research Group.

The EPA’s Environmental Workforce Development and Job Training program, was created in 1998, partly as a result of recommendations raised by the National Environmental Justice and Advisory Council’s (NEJAC) Waste and Facility Siting Subcommittee to provide training and workforce development opportunities for local, unemployed residents of predominantly low-income and minority communities disproportionately affected by brownfields and other polluting facilities. Click here to read more!

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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It All Starts with Science: Answering Questions about Mining in Bristol Bay, Alaska

Considering the scope of resources in Bristol Bay – a 37.5 million average annual run of sockeye salmon; $480 million in ecosystem-generated economic activity in 2009; 14,000 full- and part-time jobs from that activity; and 11 billion tons in potential copper and gold deposit – it is no wonder there was significant interest in an EPA science assessment to understand how wild salmon and water resources in the Bristol Bay watershed might be impacted by large-scale mining operations. The public comment periods generated 230,000 responses on the first draft of the assessment, and 890,000 on the second.

This week, after reviewing all those comments and formal peer review by 12 scientists with expertise in mine engineering, fisheries biology, aquatic biology, aquatic toxicology, hydrology, wildlife ecology, and Alaska Native cultures, EPA released its final report, “An Assessment of Potential Mining Impacts on Salmon Ecosystems of Bristol Bay, Alaska.”

More than three years ago, several Bristol Bay Alaska Native tribes requested EPA take action under the Clean Water Act to protect the Bay and its fisheries from proposed large-scale mining. Other tribes and stakeholders who support development in the Bristol Bay Watershed requested EPA take no action until a permitting process begins.

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Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations.

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Finding Balance in Alaska

This week, I was on a fact-finding mission across the state of Alaska, talking with families, business owners, tribes, and local leaders on the environmental and public health challenges they face. In particular, I spoke with Alaskans about President Obama’s Climate Action Plan.

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On Monday, I visited the Portage glacier near Anchorage, and saw first-hand some of the very real impacts of a changing climate.

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As President Obama made clear in June, there is great urgency to reduce carbon pollution and adapt to climate change. With this urgency comes great challenge, but also immense opportunity. As I travel across Alaska and the country, I see enormous potential for innovation, new technology, and American ingenuity that will help us reduce carbon pollution, adapt to a changing climate, and spur our economy. More

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations.

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Bristol Bay: The Heart of the Watershed and Its People

By Dennis McLerranMcLerran

Last week my colleague Nancy Stoner wrote about our recent visit to Bristol Bay, Alaska. I would also like to share my perspective about this incredibly valuable trip and our ongoing Watershed Assessment to examine the potential impacts of large-scale development – particularly mining.

On our first stop, tribal leaders and community residents from Iliamna, Newhalen and Nondalton, shared their perspectives about their subsistence way of life, the fishery, and the proposed mining activities in the area north of Iliamna Lake. We met with Pebble Partnership executives for an update on environmental studies and mine planning, and flew to the prospect site to see the exploration activities firsthand.

We then flew to Ekwok along the Nushagak River. People in the village were excited because the first king salmon had just been netted, and the sockeye fishing season was just a few weeks away. Residents spoke eloquently about their concerns that mining could cause them to lose the fish and game they have depended on for generations. After the meeting we boarded a jet boat to New Stuyahok. Many elders attended this meeting and gave us a strong sense of the connection between the village, the river and its resources. We travelled up the Mulchatna River to Chief Luki’s cabin site, and hiked up a nearby hillside to look across the vast stretch of tundra. We dined on traditional foods and then got back in the boat to travel upriver to Koliganek.

The following morning, we met for several hours with a large group in Dillingham that included Bella Hammond, wife of former Alaska Governor Jay Hammond, current and former Alaska legislators, tribal elders and many local residents and fishing permit holders. We listened intently as the group expressed strong concerns about resource development and protection of the Bristol Bay salmon.

The trip took us to the heart of the watershed and gave us a rare opportunity to travel to the villages that are most concerned about our Watershed Assessment. We heard from supporters of mining development as well as those who believe large scale mining would be inconsistent with the preservation of subsistence ways of life and the Bristol Bay fishery.

The ability to see the watershed, the villages, Bristol Bay and the proposed resource development area firsthand is something that could never be matched by pictures or PowerPoint presentations. It is a trip I will never forget.

About the author: Dennis McLerran is the Regional Administrator for EPA Region 10, which serves the people of Alaska, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington.

Learn more about EPA’s Watershed Assessment of Bristol Bay

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Bristol Bay, Alaska

By Nancy Stoner

As I flew over Alaska, I was struck by the vast beauty of this pristine and unspoiled land. From my perch in the helicopter, looking over the complex waterscape of lakes, wetlands, winding rivers and streams, I encountered a unique ecosystem that led to an equally unique way of life among the people who inhabit this vast and wild land. This was my trip to Bristol Bay, Alaska, a place far removed from the rush of life in Washington, D.C.

The raw nature of this place inspired me. I traveled by boat over water that was remarkably clear and clean, and stretched endlessly before us – as far as the eye could see. On land, I saw tundra brimming with blooming wildflowers and snowcapped mountains in the distance.

Bristol Bay is home to sockeye salmon, rainbow trout, moose, caribou and countless other aquatic and land life. At least 20 of the Bay’s Native American communities rely on its natural resources for subsistence living and traditional use, and the Bay holds the most productive sockeye salmon fishery in the world worth hundreds of millions of dollars each year.

Through my visits in several native communities, I saw and heard the stories of people and their way of life in Bristol Bay. On Bristol Bay, I saw offshore canneries and fishing boats lined up to harvest the sockeye salmon spawning run. On the rivers that flow into the Bay, I saw riverfront homes and heard from people that caught and ate from what the river held. I saw huge king salmon that had just begun to swim upstream through these communities. I met many subsistence fishers, who divide their catch among elders and others who cannot catch fish, and prepare a winter’s supply of food for their families.

This incredible trip to Alaska and observation of the daily lives of people who fully depend on clean water for food and life left an indelible impression and a deepened respect for the people and their way of life, as well as the pristine beauty of Alaska’s waterways.

About the author: Nancy Stoner is Acting Assistant Administrator for EPA’s Office of Water. The trip included meetings with the public as EPA conducts scientific assessments of the watershed and considers the effects of large-scale development (www.epa.gov/Region10/bristolbay/).

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.


Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Starfish Wonders in Alaska

image od two orange starfish in clear waterStarfish are mysterious creatures. Some people and articles I have read say they should be called sea stars because of their shape and their lack of relationship to fish. I had never taken an interest in them until recently when I visited Alaska and kayaked on the Tatoosh Islands. The Tatoosh are located north of Ketchikan and are part of the Tongass National Forest,  U.S largest national forest.  While kayaking along the coast, I spotted an incredible array of these colorful creatures. Bright orange and pale lavender, spiny and fat, each one more different than the other, they nestled into the dark rocks along the shore.

The starfish on Alaska are extremely different from the giant ones I have seen before on Vieques, Puerto Rico. While their Caribbean relatives are larger and rounder, the ones in the north Pacific cold waters are smaller in size. After kayaking around the Tatoosh, I began my research on these particular sea habitants. Starfish are echinoderms or marine invertebrates with a five-radial symmetry that radiates from a central disc, hence their resemblance to a star. They move by using small water-filled sacs that protrude from their body. This hydraulic vascular system, aside from helping them move, aids them with feeding. Speaking of which, they have two stomachs: one for engulfing their prey and the other one for digestion!  They have a microscopic eye at the end of each arm which helps them move and distinguish between light and dark. While they have a complex nervous system, they lack a centralized brain. I was also very surprised to learn that they are able to regenerate lost arms and that they can travel considerable distances and migrate to breed and search for food.

Starfish have been around five hundred million years and there are around 1,800 species. This region of the North Pacific is among three areas of the world that yields the greatest variety of these echinoderms. Starfish are vital to marine ecosystems because they are calcifiers. Marine calcifiers play important roles in the food chains of nearly all oceanic ecosystems, help regulate ocean chemistry, and are an important source of biodiversity and productivity.

In order to celebrate my new found love for these unique and mysterious creatures, I acquired during my trip a beautiful ring with a silver starfish adhered to a blue stone resembling the ocean.

About the author: Brenda Reyes Tomassini joined EPA in 2002. She is a public affairs specialist in the San Juan, Puerto Rico office and also handles community relations for the Caribbean Environmental Protection Division.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Plastic bags are everywhere, what can we do?

About the author: Tami Fordham joined EPA’s Seattle office in June 2001 and moved to Anchorage, Alaska to join the Alaska Operations Office in September 2003. Tami serves as the Alaska Resource Extraction Tribal Policy Advisor and is the Tribal Coordinator for Tribes in Western Alaska.

Tami standing in front of a small airplaneThe last time I was visiting with my family in Washington I learned that my parents decided to start making canvas shopping bags. They were noticing plastic bags everywhere littering the streets and hanging in the trees, you may have seen this in your local area, and so decided to start making the canvas bags to sell at their local store and to their friends. I have one of their bags and when people ask who made it, I get to proudly share their story of making a difference in the environment.

I have the great honor to work in partnership with Tribal Governments in Western Alaska along the Lower Kuskokwim River. Plastic bags are often seen throughout the tundra and so many of the communities I work with have worked to ban plastic bags in their village. The environmental programs have made canvas bags available to the tribal members in the place of plastic bags. There are many people that are now taking plastic bags and crocheting them into purses and bags that can be re-used. To find out more, check out this website. Just a few weeks ago a woman all the way from Florida called our office to find out about different re-use projects that could be done because she wanted to find projects that made a difference for the environment.

One person can make a difference, just imagine if we all made one change in how we live our lives the ripple effect it would have in our world.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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