Yukon River tribal groups hope to return river to pristine state

Posted: Monday, August 18, 2003

ANCHORAGE (AP) Growing up in Galena, Peter Captain Sr. used to dip water right from the Yukon River to drink or make coffee or tea.

Not anymore, says the 56-year-old chief of the Louden Tribal Council.

Still relatively clean when compared to other U.S. rivers, the Yukon has been fouled by mine tailings and military base pollution, urban sewage and village trash.

Pesticides carried on the wind from Japan and Russia have been found in the water and bacteria levels are sometimes too high to count.

Representatives from more than three dozen tribal organizations from Alaska and Canada will meet in Fort Yukon, the Athabascan village northeast of Fairbanks, to continue work on their goal of making the Yukon River clean again.

Captain and others living on the 2,300-mile river want to be able to drink out of the Yukon again in 50 years.

''I may never see that day. But my children and my grandchildren certainly will,'' Captain said. ''They need a better place, and they need to know their fathers and forefathers were willing to work for that.''

The Yukon River Inter-Tribal Watershed Council will begin talks on Tuesday on ways to reduce their own pollution and encourage other entities to do the same.

More than 60 villages line river and its tributaries, from Carcross, British Columbia, to the Bering Sea communities of Emmonak and St. Michael.

Village residents all along the Yukon were the first to take notice of the changing river, said Captain.

''We started getting animals and fish that had different anomalies,'' he said. The livers of some Yukon River burbot, a freshwater cod, were black instead of a healthy red, he said.

Fifteen tribes pooled grant money from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to host the first Yukon watershed meeting in 1997. There, they each discovered others had noticed the same change in the Yukon, Captain said.

Environmental awareness has blossomed along the Yukon since then, said council director Rob Rosenfeld. There are 25 tribes with environmental programs and 36 tribes have signed an accord that calls for protecting the watershed.

Military bases account for some of the pollution as fuel and toxic chemicals have been detected underground near the river and floods have carried away barrels containing airplane deicing fluid and paint, Rosenfeld said.

Other sources of pollution come from old mines in the Yukon Territory where heavy metals are leaching directly into the river or its tributaries.

Small villages and large cities also contribute the dangerous fecal coliform bacteria from their sewage, said Bill Stokes of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.

Cleaning up the Yukon is a daunting task but is not impossible, said Ken Margolis, a Portland, Ore., environmental consultant who has been working with the council since 1999.

The river is relatively clean compared with other large North American rivers like the Mississippi, Margolis said. But as development occurs, the Yukon will resemble rivers elsewhere in the world, he said.

''This is an outstanding opportunity we have to protect a major river and restore it to something close to its natural conditions,'' before European contact, Margolis said.

On the Net:

Yukon River Inter-Tribal Watershed Council: http://www.yritwc.com/

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