Story last updated at 1:20 p.m. Saturday, August 31, 2002

Loss of water source concerns Russian village
by Sepp Jannotta
Staff Writer

A decision by a local Native corporation has left more than 50 village residents without water.

At the behest of Cook Inlet Region Inc., a community water collection system used by the residents in the Nikolaevsk Third Village of Nahodka and Kluchevaya was bulldozed Aug. 21.

With winter coming on, the village's residents are now upset and worried.

"I'm not sure what we're going to do now," Usoltseff said. "They got no water at the school, and they got 12 little kids here."

CIRI took the action because the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had filed an administrative order dated July 2001 citing noncompliance with sanitation standards mandated by the Safe Drinking Water Act.

The water system, which is located on CIRI property above the villages, had already been in place for more than a decade when CIRI received the land from the state in the early 1980s as part of Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. The village had been paying the state $600 to lease the site of the water system, and when CIRI took over, the fee was raised to $800.

Since the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation first found the water to be substandard in 1992, CIRI, the EPA and DEC had repeatedly attempted to contact the villagers, said CIRI attorney Lisa Rieger. Those attempts went for naught, she added.

There was originally a provision from the EPA saying the villagers could do some sanitation work on the system to bring it closer to compliance. But again little was done.

Rieger said that when CIRI learned that the villagers were not playing ball with the EPA, they lost hope that some solution might be found.

"We sent a letter in Russian and English back in April ... just in case there was any language barrier before," Rieger said.

The letter stated that the villagers were in trespass on CIRI land and that they had to get off by the end of summer. "We didn't hear anything back on that," Rieger said.

That led to a July court hearing, by which CIRI intended to force the village to cease and desist and vacate the land.

With CIRI facing a $2,500 fine from the EPA, and with the villagers looking at the possibility of $27,500 a day in fines, officials with the Alaska Native corporation believed they had no alternative but to dispose of the offending water system, according to Rieger.

"We were very concerned that this would get prolonged into the winter," Rieger said. "So we took action early enough for them to do what they would need to do to get water before winter."

But Nikolaevsk resident and community council member Anita Roberts said there is a note of hypocrisy in the action.

For starters, Roberts said that CIRI was well aware of the problems with the water while it was cashing its lease checks.

"They let them drink that water for 10 years," Roberts said.

Roberts said that part of the problem might also stem from a cultural misunderstanding when it comes to Russian villagers.

"These people have been putting up with extreme prejudice for 32 years," Roberts said. "After being treated like that, do you think that they're going to run right out and embrace these governmental agencies? No way."

In a bizarre twist, after a back-taxes foreclosure on a house in Third Village, the Kenai Peninsula Borough was named in the EPA administrative order as being in violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act. As a property owner in the village, the borough likewise faced hefty fines if nothing was done to mitigate the problem.

So borough officials went to work testing the water and trying to set a process in motion to clean the system so that the EPA might be satisfied, but those efforts came up largely short, with the system testing positive for several dangerous bacteria, according to borough planner Christa Cady.

"One of the things that was going was to try to buy time to get some (state) grant money from Village Safe Water," said Cady. "With the grant they could have developed an alternative water system."

When the water system in the East End Road Russian village of Voznesenka was ruled to be unsafe, the village turned to the state grant system to find money for a new well and tank, which is scheduled to be completed by October.

One option for Nahodka and Kluchevaya would be to tie into the Nikolaevsk water system, something that Third Village residents have taken into consideration.

Roberts said the village would be turning to DEC or other state or borough agencies to help rectify the situation.

Sepp Jannotta can be reached at sjannotta@homernews.com.

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