Arctic Ingenuity: Fixing the Pipes

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The photo shows the old pipe (blue) being replaced by new (black), which is pulled through the old conduit with a plug and chain. (Brian Lefferts)

Fixing broken pipes in an arctic environment requires innovation. Factor in time, cost, expense, collaborations with tribal partners, ANTHC and Village Safe Water initiatives, as well as identifying emergency funding measures and it all feels like a pile of lemons. Welcome to the challenges YKHC’s Office of Environmental Health (OEH) and the Remote Maintenance Workers (RMWs) get to oversee, and how they find lemons to make lemonade.

One fine example is the recent overhaul and replacement of nearly 1,000 feet of Pilot Station’s main water line, which froze and burst last February. YKHC RMW Bob White, along with OEH’s Brian Lefferts and a fix-it-team of RMWs and some local hires in the Yukon River village, were able to remedy the situation quickly, and at a competitive price compared to “business as usual.”

The team capped the system as a temporary ‘band-aid’ until a more sustainable solution presented itself. Bob White and Brian Lefferts brainstormed possible solutions, explored resources, and within a month were able to find a remedy.

The cost of procuring and laying out new water and sewer pipe is something many rural Alaska villages are challenged with. It is not news that for many rural Alaskans who reside “off the road system,” the honeybucket has yet to find its way to the museum. But clean and safe water is a big health priority. “Providing at least 17 gallons of water per person per day for residents of the YK Delta would be the most effective health intervention that could be implemented to improve the health or our population,” said YKHC’s Medical Director, Dr. Joseph Klejka.

The reason many parts of rural Alaska are challenged in identifying sustainable water/sewer infrastructure is two-fold: the expense of obtaining and shipping materials to build the appropriate infrastructure in remote parts of the state and, two, the difficulty of maintaining systems once they’re built—aggravated by the extreme weather and lack of trained maintenance professionals.

Enter the Remote Maintenance Workers. After a bit of research about a company in Washington State that was using an innovative method of replacing old piping corridors, they found a quick, feasible and do-able solution to help Pilot Station.

The team was able to procure enough funds to purchase what we’ll refer to as the “Pipe Burster.” The equipment was purchased and freighted up to Bethel on a barge. Almost like an ‘oil pig,’ pulling a triangular or wedge-shaped plug through an outdated foam-insulated arctic pipe, the pipe burster squishes the yellow-foam insulation surrounding the pipe and “threads” room for newer and stronger pipe materials (with a longer shelf life in extreme conditions) to replace the shattered piping. Pilot Station was literally a “pilot project” to test the effectiveness of this new technique.

If the Pilot Station pipes were to be repaired or replaced using the usual method of bringing in brand new pipe, it would have cost $200 to $250 per foot. Replacing the piping inside the foam corridors using the “Pipe Burster” cut the cost in half. In addition, now that YKHC owns this equipment and the RMWs are trained, pipes in other villages can be repaired with even greater cost savings.

YKHC is sharing this new way of replacing pipe with other partnering tribal organizations, including ANTHC and Village Safe Water Engineers.The new method is cost-effective and significantly addresses unmet needs for our remote villages. As owners and operators of the equipment, YKHC will be able to be more competitive in bidding future  replacement projects to decrease the number of winter freeze-ups. It’s taking the lemons, and making lemonade.

2 Comments

  1. Mista C said on

    I doubt those RMW hands have plumbing licenses which is it probably why it broke in the first place.

  2. Brian Lefferts said on

    The initial pipe installation was performed over 30 years ago by the Indian Health Service. This pipe froze and cracked due to extreme cold temperatures, one of the coldest winters on record.

    Remote Maintenance Workers have extensive training in water treatment and distribution and on construction and maintenance of sanitation facility infrastructure. Additionally, they are certified by the State of Alaska as water plant operators. The pipe bursting project in Pilot Station was performed with training and guidance from leading national experts in the pipe bursting.

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