By Tori Tragis
When spring shatters the lock winter has held on Alaska’s frozen white land, the hillsides soften into green and the ground becomes springy underfoot. The rivers flow again, the puddles dwindle and fade — and then comes the dust. Billowing, suffocating piles of it, massive blooms of tawny grit and ricocheting pebbles. The thick air blinds drivers, chokes pedestrians and cascades into homes, dust settling onto every surface and into every crevice — on countertops, in computers and down into the lungs.
During the summer, dust inundates Eagle — the Native village and the city, twin communities in eastern Alaska, near the Canadian border. The road leading into Eagle, the road that connects the small city with the village, the byroads and side roads, all are unpaved. There’s been talk of paving at least the primary paths off and on over the years, but the community consensus has generally been against it.
“It gives Eagle part of its feel, having dirt roads,” says Ann Millard, the local school’s recently retired principal. “The tourist industry is important to us, although it’s not really active [right now]. Having paved streets is at the opposite end of the spectrum.”
The problem was worse when the large tour buses came regularly into town, but Millard says many Eagle people accepted that as the price to be paid for providing a frontier feel that would attract tourists. And, she points out, the sprawling, silty Yukon and its buffeting winds come with an all-natural deluge of dust.
Still, dust is a problem. It hangs in the air and gets tracked into people’s homes. It aggravates the asthma of some of the kids in Millard’s school. It coats the community garden and clings to salmon drying on racks. So about 10 years ago, the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities offered to try a dust suppressant, or palliative, on Eagle’s roads. But the product DOT wanted to try uses a proprietary formula, which means its contents are secret.
“That’s what makes people nervous,” Millard says. “After it was applied we noticed we were getting a rainbow sheen on the road. I saw a sign up at the post office, something about ‘Brought to you by the state government: Rainbows on our rain puddles.'”
The secrecy bothers Gary, Ann Millard’s husband. He moved to Eagle from his hometown of Fairbanks 17 years ago so he could live somewhere that wasn’t so big, so … city. “I went to the public testimony when the DOT guy was coming in before they applied it. I’m not a big fan of government agencies telling us, ‘Oh, it’s ok.’ […]They won’t tell us what is going to happen for those that are ingesting it. They say it’s all organic. Well, that’s all fine and dandy, but oil is organic and you don’t drink it.”
The Millards agree something should be done to control dust, but absent solid information about what is in the chemical palliatives, they lean toward using water to regularly dampen the streets. They are careful to note that while some in their community agree with them, others do not. Bruce Atkinson, who lives up the road between Eagle and Eagle Village, just upstream, deplores the dust and welcomes even a chemical solution, anything that’s more efficient and cost-effective than watering the roads twice a day, which crews had been doing during the tour bus heyday.
“Just a regular vehicle doing 15 mph kicks up tremendous dust,” Atkinson says. “A big huge cloud of dust goes up in the yard and carries everything into the house. Sometimes I will run the garden hose but that only lasts a couple hours when it’s hot. It’s terrible.”
Calcium chloride is an alternative to water and chemicals, and is commonly used (though not in Eagle). It’s also commonly the focus of complaints that it leaves a salty taste on subsistence foods like berries and drying fish so many villages still rely on spraying water on unpaved roads. It works, but only for a while. On a hot, dry day, it could evaporate within a few hours, so the roads have to be continually sprayed.
“Water is labor intensive, and things are tight,” says Andy Journey. He’s the water plant operator and utilities director for the city of St. Mary’s, in Southwestern Alaska. His situation highlights the scarcity of a number of resources — money, labor, equipment — that is common in rural communities.
“We need to take one of our operators away from one of our other projects,” Journey explains. “We have a flatbed with a thousand-gallon tank on it but it sits on a lowboy that will only fit on a dump truck, and you need an operator’s license for that. We’d normally haul it with our flatbed but our trash truck is broken so we’re using the flatbed as the trash truck.”
Journey is the only one with an operator’s license, so he drives the dump truck with the water tank on it. On hot, sunny summer days, he’ll be out there every day for two to three hours, spraying water that will keep the dust down for just three or four hours.
“Watering roads is a daily chore,” he says. “A dust palliative — we could put it on in three, four days and it would last two to three months and get us into the fall rains, and [then] it wouldn’t matter.”
Journey says the village tested four types of palliatives in 2012. One worked especially well, but he notes ruefully that it was the most expensive of the group, and there were problems with applying it, so he’s still trying to figure out his options. He has to factor in the exorbitant cost of barging in whatever he does decide on, and while there’s talk of one of the regional Native corporations developing a palliative from used cooking oil that could be produced regionally, it’s not a viable candidate in the near future.
In the meantime, he maintains the streets as best he can. “It’s an ongoing battle. We have to do our roads no matter what.”
Keeping it togetherA gravel or dirt road is made up of two primary materials: rock or gravel (aggregate) and a binding agent, something that keeps the aggregate together. Dust is part of that binding material. Lose the dust and you lose what holds the road together. If you don’t pay to keep the dust on the ground using some kind of mitigation strategy — water, chemical or something else — you’ll have to pay a lot more when too much dust is lost and the road surface needs to be repaired or replaced.
A typical gravel road or runway in Alaska lasts four to eight years if it’s not treated for dust control. Put down a palliative, and its life span improves to eight to 12 years before the surface material needs to be replaced. If you’re in an area that doesn’t have gravel available, which includes much of rural Alaska, you have to barge it in. Take the surface material needed to repair the airport at Manley, which has access to gravel. It costs an average of $50 per cubic yard. Double or even quadruple that for a remote site with no local gravel, and now you’re looking at an average of $150 per cubic yard. If the Manley runway gets no dust suppression, it would need a new surface three times over the course of 16 years (year 1, year 8, year 16) in a best-case scenario, costing DOT about $700,000. Use a palliative, which costs far less than buying and laying surface material, and that number drops to $617,000, in part because you only need to put down a new surface twice, in year 1 and year 16. Considering there are 870 acres of runway and 4,600 acres of unpaved roads the state is responsible for in the northern region alone, the savings on dust-treated roads are significant. That doesn’t include the miles of roads that villages are responsible for, villages whose budgets are even more constrained than the state’s.
Journey isn’t worried about using chemicals on his community’s roads. He’s talked with other villages in his area, and says they are satisfied with the results. “All the technical product descriptions have been tested by some federal chemical labs and have been proven to be safe,” he says. “I’ve seen the lethal doses, and [our application rates are] so far under it.”
Instead, he says, it’s a question of road safety and quality of life. If one of the big rigs from the local gravel pit go more than 15 mph, he says, you can see hardly anything. The village posts signs asking drivers to stay under 20 mph, and that helps, but only if everyone keeps a light foot on the gas pedal.
Concerns about safety and visibility on the roads are voiced throughout rural Alaska. Seldovia, on the Kenai Peninsula, uses calcium chloride on some of its roads, but it isn’t applied everywhere, and in lean funding years, it sometimes isn’t applied at all.
“There are times there’s so much dust you can’t see someone until you’re on top of them and you might hit them,” says Michael Opheim, the environmental coordinator for Seldovia Village Tribe. “You sometimes have to stop because you can’t see in front of you.”
No room to breatheAir thick enough to see is thick enough to choke on. In a dust-laden community, breathing can be a labor of life for some people, especially the young, the elderly and anyone with lung or heart problems.
Dust contains tiny particles, or particulate matter, called PM10. PM10 is less than the width of a human hair and can be seen only with an electron microscope. (PM10 also contains PM2.5, an even finer measurement associated with smoke from burning wood or coal.) When PM10 is inhaled, it gets into the lung tissues, where it can cause breathing and heart problems.
Naturally occurring asbestos can also be a problem in some places in Alaska, according to state toxicologist Ali Hamade. Exposure to asbestos can, he says, lead to serious health problems like asbestosis and lung cancer. Efforts to control dust are, he says, critically important, especially on heavily trafficked roads where children play.
Fifty rural Alaska communities responded to a 2010 rural dust survey conducted by the state Department of Environmental Conservation. All of them reported that dust caused coughing and irritation of the eyes, nose and throat. Dust was considered a factor in aggravating asthma by 84 percent of communities, and 72 percent reported increased problems with chronic bronchitis and chest tightness.*
* The surveys were self-reported by one or more residents in each village, and the respondents were not necessarily medical professionals.