Pipes, plumbing, and public relations: The life of an Alaska water plant operator

When there is an installation problem in Savoonga, Scott Kingeekuk’s phone rings.

Kingeekuk, 33, was born and raised in Savoonga. He remembers when the village still used honey buckets. He was a teenager when the sewage treatment plant opened, ushering in a new era of indoor plumbing and sanitation.

Scott Kingeekuk repairs main pumps in a plant.

Today Kingeekuk is the leading water system operator for the St. Lawrence Island community – and the guy the neighbors call when there is a problem with their pipes.

“Now you can’t live without it,” he said. “As soon as a toilet is down, I’ll get a call. They want their toilets to work again. “

Clean water, better health

Before the domestic water and sewage service arrived in Savoonga, running water was previously only available in the communal laundry room. The aquatic plant changed life, said Kingeekuk.

“In any case, it was a lot easier for people to stay clean and do their laundry,” he said. “The hygiene has increased. I can say that children have fewer cavities, brush their teeth more and wash more. “

“The honey buckets were a problem themselves,” he said. “Some people didn’t throw them away and they dumped them outside their homes. The dump was pretty close to town so the smell was kind of bad. I remember we had a blackfly infestation in the summer. “

The elders in particular had a hard time when they had no one at home to help them properly dispose of their waste, he added. Improving the quality of life was important for everyone in the village.

“Clean, safe water – drinking water – and a sanitation system are really important to the community,” said Kingeekuk.

Kingeekuk’s work day starts at the water factory but takes him across town.

“I come to the water facility and make sure everything is going right and working as it should,” said Kingeekuk. “I collect readings from all pumps and components in the system and make sure there is enough chlorine for the incoming raw water.” Kingeekuk and his staff also check the sewage lagoon twice a day, with a round-trip trip of about a mile each time.

However, that’s only part of what his team does. There are roughly 150 houses in Savoonga, and on any given day Kingeekuk or a member of his crew – he oversees a backup operator and two on-call personnel – is likely to be called to at least one or two of them. Kingeekuk said the facility generally takes a few service calls every day, often clogged toilets or leaking bathroom fixtures.

“We have a pretty complicated sewer system,” said Kingeekuk. “It’s a vacuum sewer system. When a toilet goes, it affects the whole system. “

The hardest part of the job, he added, can be communicating with the public about system repairs, problems, and – unfortunately – shutdowns due to non-payment. Facebook is a handy tool for broadcasting what’s going on with the plumbing system. Billing is done through the Alaska Rural Utility Collaborative. However, it is up to Kingeekuk to manually stop the service. It can be awkward telling a neighbor to come over and turn off their water until payments overtake them.

“It’s going to be really uncomfortable, but it has to be done,” said Kingeekuk. “I’ve got to the point where they know I’m just doing my job. So that made it easier.”

In watered communities, filling jobs like Kingeekuk’s can be challenging. Some communities are unable to offer competitive wages. Training and certification are required. Some systems are slowly showing their age and can be difficult to maintain, as was Savoonga when Kingeekuk started working there in 2011. Kingeekuk said he was initially concerned that he was not qualified for the job.

“I went blind,” he said. “I didn’t know anything about water and sewage.”

In his first year he was immersed in practical training. Kingeekuk was already mechanically hired as he grew up helping his uncles repair machinery and attending motorcycle mechanics school in Arizona. He soon found that he had the ability to work with the sewer system.

“Taking apart pumps and troubleshooting pumps or panels was a given given that I had this mechanical background,” he said. And over the years, in addition to his on-the-job learning, he received more formal training. He now has five technical certificates and is a Level II wastewater operator. That year, he was named Wastewater Operator of the Year by the Alaska Rural Water Association.

But there is more to his position than knowing how to flush a pipe or repair a leak.

“It’s a pretty demanding job,” said Kingeekuk. “It can get very stressful. I myself say it is not for everyone. “

He remembered attending a water system operator’s retreat where many operators talked about burnout, which tends to occur after around five years of use.

“It sure is some kind of underrated job,” he said. “They don’t even think about you until their toilet is blocked or their shower stops working or something.”

Kingeekuk said he felt the same burnout and at one point wondered if he should leave his job. But he’s sticking to it – partly because of Savoonga’s limited job opportunities, but mostly because he recognizes the important role he plays in the village.

“I’ve come this far,” he said. “Why stop now? People need me. “

And it is satisfying to know that what he does is really important to his friends, family and neighbors.

“The best thing, I would say, is to help people,” he said. “Just to be able to serve the community in ways that no one else can.”

This story was sponsored by the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, a statewide nonprofit tribal health organization that caters to the unique health needs of more than 175,000 Alaskan Native Americans and Native Americans.

This story was produced by the creative division of the Anchorage Daily News in association with the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.

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