Bethel puzzles over how to unclog a seriously frozen well

An ice chunk is blocking an essential well for Bethel schools. For almost a week, maintenance crews have been melting the ice, while the city delivers water to the campus. So far, there’s no end in sight to how deep the impasse runs.

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Every school in Bethel relies on the frozen well. When it’s working, the well provides water for the Yup’ik Immersion School, the Kuskokwim Learning Academy, or KLA, and student dorms. The three other schools in Bethel receive its food from the KLA kitchen.

“That school is a main artery here,” said James Mikesell, Plant Facilities Manager for the Lower Kuskokwim School District.

Mikesell is leading the charge on the frozen well, which started showing problems in September.

“It was slowing down. Its production level was slowing down. Then 9-28 that was it. There was hardly any water coming out at all,” said Mikesell.

Mikesell first thought the well had collapsed. The structure’s pipe was installed in the 1960s and has been sitting in earth rich in iron, which corrodes metal.

“We put some heat down there with some heat tape and melted, and it started going down,” said Mikesell. “I’m going, sand doesn’t do that; solid ground doesn’t do that.”

Then he discovered something he ha never seen before, never even heard of before.

“We’ve come to find out, it is frozen,” said Mikesell.

Mikesell and his crew have been melting a tube of ice inside the well casing for about a week. So far, they have thawed 30 feet of ice.

“It was eight feet one day. It was three feet another day. It was five feet another day,” said Mikesell.

The ice initially started about 100 feet below ground. Mikesell said the deeper they go, the slower the ice melts.

“I had hoped, hope upon hope, that we would have already have been through it. But we’re not. I have no idea how deep this plug can go,” said Mikesell.

The well runs almost 450 feet.

The school district has ordered another heating device that is supposed to blast out the ice with hot water, hopefully.

“These are just kind of experiments in terror when it comes to this sort of thing,” said Mikesell.

While Mikesell and his crew work on the well, the school district is purchasing hauled water from the city, almost 7,000 gallons per day for about $500 a day.