Andrew Stull, environmental health specialist for the Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department, spent two weeks in April in Kotzebue, Alaska, and five nearby villages as part of a humanitarian mission trip with the Navy Reserves.
Stull, of Lawrence, was among about 200 people — from all over the country representing the Navy, Army, Marines and Air Force — who traveled to the extremely isolated area to provide environmental, medical and veterinary services. Kotzebue is located 30 miles north of the Arctic Circle on the western coast.
“There are no roads between the villages so you have to fly or use a snow machine or a four-wheeler,” he said. Stull used a helicopter and small plane to travel back and forth between Kotzebue, which has a population of 3,000 people, and the villages, which have between 200 and 1,000 residents.
Stull was one of only three environmental specialists on the trip. They provided sanitation, health and environmental assessments at health clinics, wastewater plants and a hospital. He said each village has a clinic and its own water source. The main environmental concern was a water shortage in one of the villages, Kivalina, because of a distribution line problem. “There was rationing going on,” Stull said. “Hopefully, in the next month, they will be able to fill the reserve back up.”
Most of the village residents are poor and live in prefabricated homes that are placed on piers because of the permafrost — the annual mean temperature is 21 degrees.
He said the wastewater system is different. The villages have lagoons and if they get full, they overflow. “It’s not what I would like to see, but it’s hard to get a traditional treatment facility because of the freezing. They should have aerated pumps but it would be difficult to get those to work as well,” he said.
Environmental services were just a small portion of the mission trip. The Army provided veterinarians and they were busy because the Alaskan area has no vets. “They did a lot of spaying and neutering and providing vaccines for diseases.” Residents mostly have sled dogs, but there are a few other breeds of dogs and a few cats.
The humanitarian work also included medical and dental services. “Dental health there is very poor,” Stull said. “They don’t fluoride their water by choice. It’s also a lack of education about the importance of brushing and flossing. The kids’ teeth were pretty bad. There were some children who were 17 years old and needed dentures because they only had five good teeth. It was sad to see that.”
Stull said one of the highlights of the trip was a parade in Kotzebue, where they got to ride on trucks and throw trinkets to the children. There was a community potluck after the parade where residents brought their specialty dishes. Stull tried caribou soup, smoked salmon and polar bear, but passed on the whale and seal.
Stull said most of the people are hunters because food is expensive; for example, a quart of ice cream cost about $15 and a 20-ounce soda is $4. “They live off of whales. They had a community dance while I was there to help the north wind change, which would help bring whales to them,” he said. “That was fascinating.”
Stull has worked at the Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department for 12 years and has been in the Navy Reserves for nearly two years.