It’s a cold February afternoon about a half-mile from the village of Kwethluk. Hard pack snow crunches beneath our feet.
“We are at the Kuskoquak Slough by the traditional watering hole where people from Kwethluk used to originally pack water and now it’s contaminated with fuel,” says Evan Olick, the water plant operator here in Kwethluk.
He says fuel and oil from heavy equipment on the sunken barge may be making people who consume river water sick.
“This is the first experience that people notice the water is different in taste. And some kids they say it’s “rainbow like water.” And I say that’s most likely diesel or something.”
Kwethluk resident Dawn Redfox says she and her whole family have been drinking slough water for years.
“I don’t know how long after, my kids started puking, my nephew came over and he started puking. They had fevers,” she says.
Redfox says she, too, became ill, and she thinks it’s because of diesel fuel in the water.
The barge, owned by Faulkner Walsh Constructors out of Bethel, has been in the water since October.
Initially some diesel fuel or lube oil did spill from barge, which now sits half under the frozen ice.
The City of Kwethluk has advised residents to stop packing water from the river and is offering water from the village plant free of charge.
Evan says he took a water sample from the traditional hole and sent it to a lab in the lower 48.
“It said “it’s little to be reported.” But consuming it will affect humans and people will start getting sick or nauseated or having diarrhea.”
Bob Carleson is with the Department of Environmental Conservation in Bethel.
“And I reviewed the lab results of that sample and I found that there were hits or evidence of contaminants that they sampled for. And there was quite a list, a long list, of potential contaminants that you might expect to find in petroleum that you might run samples for. And they simply didn’t come up with anything,” Carleson says.
He cannot say why exactly people have gotten sick, but the sample suggests that it may not be from diesel or other petroleum products in the water.
“River water can make you sick. It has a lot of contaminants, biological contaminants, bacteria and protozoans, things that can make you quite sick or worse.”
Whatever is or isn’t in the water, residents say it’s the water that’s making them ill.
Carleson says his department has been in contact with Faulkner Walsh in order to get the firm to remove the barge, though nothing has happened as of yet.
“We’ve been trying to convince Faulkner Walsh to come up with a plan, submit a plan to the agencies who are concerned with this. That’s us, the EPA, perhaps the Coastguard, Department of Natural resources, the State Department. And then proceed to remove the vehicles that are on the barge, or were on the barge, and the barge itself so they don’t get loose at breakup.”
He says the worst-case scenario would be a piece of heavy equipment resting in the river and possibly damaging boats and other barges.
The DEC is not alone in wanting the barge out, Evan Olick and other Kwethluk residents feel the same.
“I wish they could hurry up and clean up the mess and take out the equipment before spring comes around. If they don’t, that’s going to be another disaster that we are going to be looking at.”
Faulkner Walsh did not return requests for interviews for this story.