Working to Support Communities in Alaska Native Villages

At EPA, we respect the way of life that has enabled Alaska native villages in the Arctic and subarctic to thrive for thousands of years. We take our responsibility to those communities very seriously.  Here in the Alaska Operations Office, our focus is to connect these communities with our national policies and programs, to ensure a robust future in the face of a changing climate.

Last week, President Obama, along with Secretary John Kerry and some of EPA’s senior leaders, traveled to Alaska to see firsthand the effects of climate change and other issues that affect those who live and work here in the far north.  President Obama’s closing remarks at the GLACIER conference summarized the challenges and importance of both mitigating and adapting to climate change.

More than 184 Alaskan villages are at risk from erosion, flooding and permafrost thaw, a problem exacerbated by climate change. Both coastal and interior river system communities face unique challenges.  To explore this, Tami Fordham, our deputy director, traveled to Bethel, Alaska with Jane Nishida, EPA’s Principal Deputy Assistant Administrator for International and Tribal Affairs.  In Bethel, they heard from the Association of Village Council Presidents about the challenges facing many communities in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.

Jane Nishida, Principal Deputy Assistant Administrator for International and Tribal Affairs, and Curtis Mann, Brownfields Coordinator, Orutsararmuit Native Council Kuskokwim River standing in front of water

Jane Nishida, Principal Deputy Assistant Administrator for International and Tribal Affairs, and Curtis Mann, Brownfields Coordinator, Orutsararmuit Native Council Kuskokwim River.

One pressing challenge is removing household hazardous waste and e-waste from remote villages that are accessible only by air or water.  Especially because the Yukon–Kuskokwim Delta is so wet, this material needs a way out of the community to prevent future contamination of important water resources.  With funds from our Indian Environmental General Assistance Program (IGAP), AVCP is actively working on the removal of e-waste. During our visit, they shared the challenges of filling a shipping container and transporting it to a facility where this material can be properly managed.

Throughout Alaska, we are supporting communities with similar solid and hazardous waste projects, and working with state, federal, and local partners to identify solutions.  Our presence in Alaska also enables us to participate with the Collaborative Community Planning for Resilient Alaska Communities and the Sustainable Northern Communities Roundtable, both of which have been working on collaborative community planning.

Alaska is a long journey from Washington, D.C. I appreciate the effort of all of the public servants who took the time to make the trip and join the dialogue with Alaskan communities.

About the author: Dianne Soderlund is the Director of the EPA Alaska Operations Office.  An Alaskan since 1980, she fulfills EPA’s federal trust responsibilities to the state’s 229 federally recognized tribes, and works on a wide range of environmental issues, including air, water, hazardous materials and energy development.

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EPA at GLACIER Summit

Jane Nishida Jane Nishida

Last week I led our delegation to GLACIER, the Conference on Global Leadership in the Arctic: Cooperation, Innovation, Engagement and Resilience, in Anchorage, Alaska.  The U.S.-hosted conference convened foreign ministers of Arctic nations and key non-Arctic states with scientists, policymakers, and indigenous communities from Alaska and the Arctic to highlight opportunities and challenges in addressing climate change in this fragile region.  The conference also included public sessions on a range of issues including strengthening emergency response, development of renewable energy, and community health.

As part of the public sessions, I chaired a panel on “Protecting Communities and the Environment through Climate and Air Quality Projects,” which included discussions of the challenges of providing clean, reliable energy in remote communities; the particular environmental and public health needs of indigenous communities; and opportunities for local and global cooperation to address black carbon in the Arctic. Black carbon is the third largest warming agent globally, and because it causes ice melt, its effect on the Arctic is even more pronounced. In addition to its impact on the climate, black carbon also affects the health of local communities, causing cardiovascular and respiratory diseases. Our panel highlighted international mechanisms and our programs to address black carbon, including our effort to reduce black carbon emissions in the largest city in the Arctic Circle.

Also showcased at the GLACIER Summit was the EPA-supported Local Environmental Observer (LEO) network, created by the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. Alaska Native LEO members raise awareness about emerging climate change-related events and develop adaptation strategies to address environmental and public health concerns.   LEO provides a critical bridge between local knowledge, traditional knowledge, and Western science. Through our two-year U.S. Chairmanship of the Arctic Council, we are supporting the expansion of this network across the polar region.

Another discussion, “Strengthening International Preparedness and Cooperation for Emergency Response,” highlighted the efforts of the Alaska Regional Response Team (ARRT). This partnership of state and federal agencies makes plans and preparations to support the EPA, the U.S. Coast Guard, and the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, who are responsible for responding to oil spills and hazardous materials releases anywhere in the state.  The ARRT works with a special emphasis on overcoming the unique challenges of responding in the Arctic. The session emphasized working closely with communities to incorporate indigenous knowledge into response planning.

To close the conference, President Obama delivered an impassioned call for international action on climate change and to protect our shared Arctic. President Obama is the first president to visit America’s Arctic and to witness firsthand the impacts of climate change on this region. During his trip, President Obama also visited with Alaska Natives in Kotzebue and Dillingham.

I am proud to have represented EPA and the United States at this event, grateful for the hospitality we were shown by Arctic communities, and inspired by their commitment and resilience in meeting the climate challenge. My sincere thanks to all of them, and everyone who is contributing to the preservation and protection of our shared Arctic.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.

EPA in the Arctic

Jane Nishida Jane Nishida
Ice breaking off the coast of Greenland. (Credit: Ben DeAngelo)

Ice breaking off the coast of Greenland. (Credit: Ben DeAngelo)

The Arctic is changing at a faster rate than the rest of the world. Warming air and sea temperatures mean melting ice, thawing permafrost, and unpredictable seasons. These changes in turn impact the marine and terrestrial ecosystems upon which many northern indigenous families depend for food, clothing, and shelter. My office works to engage these communities in building resilience in the face of a rapidly changing climate, while at the same time, we are working at home and abroad to address the causes of these changes.

Supporting Alaska Native Villages means taking action at home and abroad to address the impacts of global warming. EPA leads efforts under the President’s Climate Action Plan and the National Strategy for the Arctic Region to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases through domestic regulation, improve the monitoring and reporting of emissions, address sources of emissions with our international partners, and support capacity building for local governments, states, and American Indian and Alaska Native communities. Continue reading

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.