After 16 years with unpumped sewage, Red Devil citizens try to reestablish government

A girl runs toward a home through grazz
Coryn Nicoli runs through her backyard in Red Devil, Alaska on Aug. 16, 2019. (Katie Basile/KYUK)

The remote former mining town of Red Devil on the Kuskokwim River hasn’t had its sewage drained.

Ever.

The community had septic systems installed, and plans were laid for a sewage lagoon, but it was never built.

“Because we have no sewage lagoon, we can’t pump it out. And this will be the sixteenth year that none of the 1,000 gallon tanks have been emptied,” said Theodore Gordon, one of the 21-26 residents of the town, depending on who’s counting.

Red Devil can’t get funding to pump its tanks or to dig a lagoon because it doesn’t have any entities to act as recipients on the community’s behalf. It had a tribal council running intermittently since the 1970s, but the council stopped operating more than a decade ago.

Most tribal members and their descendants left for bigger towns and more work, and now there are only three tribal members remaining in town. Tribal members scattered across the state are working to reestablish their council, but elections have been bogged down by disagreements about proper process and protocol. 

Though minuscule, Red Devil is bigger than it was a century ago. There wasn’t a village until a prospector struck mercury ore. He built a mine and workers arrived. At its height, Red Devil’s population was in the triple digits. When the price of mercury collapsed, the mine closed up shop and jobs melted away.

Now, the town has four jobs.

“They have the post office. One job is for meeting the mail plane picking up the mail, and then the other two jobs [are] at the power plant,” Gordon said.

When the mine’s operators shut down, they left a dubious legacy. The region is mired with mercury in the water and land. Levels are too high for the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation to be comfortable with.

The federal Bureau of Land Management has plans for the eventual mercury mine site cleanup, but Red Devil is near the site of the proposed Donlin Gold mine. Individual residents can comment on the permitting process, but have no official entity to act on their behalf.

A local government entity like a city council could serve as elected representation for the whole community. But to establish a second-class city, with a council that could run municipal systems, a community has to have 25 residents.

Census estimates currently fall just shy of that, though if Red Devil believes it has more people, it could challenge the estimates.

Many similarly-sized towns in Alaska received tens of thousands of dollars in CARES Act funding last year. Some were represented by community associations, nonprofit entities that can take on many of the same responsibilities as city governments. There’s no minimum population required to form a community association, but Red Devil doesn’t have one.

One community member, Theresa Morgan, said she would simply like Red Devil to have more municipal amenities.

“We really would like, you know, the water and sewer, a store and clinic, just to get Red Devil back on its feet.”