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Nunapitchuk's laundromat and water treatment building is tilting precariously

Jacob Tobeluk

It’s unclear exactly when the old water treatment and laundromat building in Nunapitchuk began shifting, but in mid-July, Jacob Tobeluk said that the situation became impossible to ignore.

“The workers were saying they heard a loud crack, like a pop, and then felt the building move,” Tobeluk said. “There was one person who was working and she said it scared her so much she almost ran out the building.”

Tobeluk grew up in Nunapitchuk and is now the city’s grant writer. He said that as a kid, he and his friends would come into the water building in the winter to warm up. The building was always relatively level, but in recent years its southwestern corner has begun to sink and Tobeluk said that the building is already leaning about 20 degrees. He fears that it is close to collapse.

“It's getting to the point where it's kind of dangerous. If it shifts on the southern end 6 inches or more, I think that whole back end is going to fall off,” Tobeluk said.

The building houses both the laundromat and Nunapitchuk’s water treatment facility. If it collapses, there will be no other source in the village for running water. Nunapitchuk has no piped water. Although Tobeluk said that most people capture rain for drinking water, residents use the treated water for doing dishes, washing clothes, and flushing toilets.

As a precaution, the village closed down the laundromat a few weeks ago. Residents of Nunapitchuk have been traveling to Kasigluk to do laundry instead, which is a 10 or 15 minute boat ride. Kasigluk blocked off two days a week for people from Nunapitchuk to do their laundry. The laundromat has since reopened at limited capacity.

Construction has already begun on a new laundromat and water treatment facility, and crews are currently working 12-hour days.

Representatives from the state-run Village Safe Water program came out to Nunapitchuk two week ago to inspect the water building. Jason Bluhm, Village Safe Water’s program manager, said that they recognize that the building has foundation issues, but they have to weigh that concern against the public health concern of there being no access to clean water were the building to shut down. Bluhm said that they’ll continue to monitor the building. Still, Tobeluk has trouble trusting their judgment, in part because the long-time water treatment operator doesn’t have faith in the building.

“Who are you going to trust? Somebody who never worked there a day in their lives, or a person who's been working there for years and years?” Tobeluk said. “I think I feel more comfortable taking his advice over somebody who came in and just looked at it.”

The sinking building is part of a broader concern in Nunapitchuk, where just about everything is getting wetter and more unstable. Both Tobeluk and city administrator Juliana Wassillie said that in recent years, the town has become increasingly swampy. Many places don’t grow vegetation anymore, and large stretches of boardwalk are submerged. It gets worse every spring.

“Definitely there's something going on underneath the ground,” Tobeluk said. “My guess would be the permafrost is deteriorating faster than we can adapt.”

The village has discussed relocation, but there are no hard plans on that front yet.

Will McCarthy is a temporary news reporter at KYUK. Previously, he worked as a furniture mover, producer, and freelance journalist. Will's written for the New York Times, National Geographic, and Texas Monthly. He holds a master's degree in journalism from UC Berkeley.