A utility room under Mertarvik’s public school is full of raw sewage

a utility room
As more and more families permanently relocate from Newtok to Mertarvik, demand is overwhelming the community’s wastewater system. The building is owned by the Newtok Village Council and leased by the Lower Kuskokwim School District. (Emily Schwing/KYUK)

Two of the only flush toilets in the village of Mertarvik are in the temporary public school building, but their use is limited. All day long, kids come and go from the building, crunching through slushy spring snow on their way to their houses so they can use the “bathroom” at home.

On April 25, just after lunch, second-grader Colton John set out for his house “because I need to take a number two,” he explained. It’s been school policy for weeks that kids leave the building to relieve themselves. “Because if we flush it, the toilet might break,” he said.

The Newtok Village Council owns the temporary school building, called the Mertarvik Evacuation Center, and the Lower Kuskokwim School District currently leases the building to provide daily K-12 public education to more than 50 kids in the village.

What kids use at home isn’t really a bathroom. Almost everyone who lives in Mertarvik poops in a five-gallon bucket lined with a trash bag – also called a honey bucket.

“Well, it’s kind of normal,” said Tribal Administrator Calvin Tom. “We’ve been handling our own poop and piss for as long as I know.”

Tom grew up nine miles away, across the Ninglick River in Newtok, without running water or a flush toilet. Now, that village is sinking as permafrost underneath the community deteriorates. For decades, residents here have been working to move to Mertarvik.

In Mertarvik, the temporary school, the clinic, and a building nicknamed “the man camp” are hooked up to a system that looks like a small shipping container. It holds all of the solid waste flushed down the drain from those three buildings. “With contractors and more kids at the school, you know, we gotta empty it out more than usual,” Tom said.

a utility room
For at least the last two months, raw sewage has been backing up in a utility room underneath the space leased by the Lower Kuskokwim School District for daily K-12 public education in Mertarvik. (Emily Schwing/KYUK)

Over the last year, a growing number of families have permanently relocated to Mertarvik. Construction crews are constantly in and out to help build the infrastructure that supports this new village. But the influx of people is overwhelming the temporary wastewater treatment system. It is supposed to be pumped out occasionally, but the valves that fit a tank used to empty it have gone missing. And while Tom waits for replacements, the sewage builds up and the problem gets worse. “There’s a huge health risk,” Tom said, “and just getting parts is just hard.”

The stink coming from the bathrooms in Mertarvik’s temporary school building permeates throughout the building. One staff member said the stench made them so dizzy they stumbled down the stairs a few months ago. But the bathrooms are clean and the toilets appear functional, so the source of the smell was a mystery, until the maintenance man for the building opened the door to a utility room downstairs, which houses the boilers that heat the building and all the pumps that keep the water flowing.

Inside the utility room, brown liquid oozes down the wall and forms a pool the size of a large living-room rug an inch deep on the floor. Little piles of soaking wet toilet paper are spread across the space. Abba Active, the maintenance worker, said it’s been like this for at least two months.

Newtok Village Council members said they had no idea wastewater was pooling up in their building. It’s been going on long enough that a six-inch hole has opened up in the plywood floor, which is now rotting. Calvin Tom said the school district never notified him of the problem.

KYUK emailed LKSD Superintendent Kimberly Hankins about the situation on April 29. Hankins replied saying she had not been informed.

On May 2, an LKSD facilities team traveled to Mertarvik for the day to assess the situation. After that trip, Hankins wrote, “there will be no water or bathroom use in the main building until the system is fixed.”

In the meantime, if kids have to poop, they will continue to use honey buckets at home.

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