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Zender Environmental Health & Research Group is a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization.

Who We Are

About Us

We begin work where the community is at, identify together what is needed, and partner on the effort until that goal is reached.

Founded in 2007, Zender Environmental Health and Research Group is an Alaska-based non-profit 501c3 dedicated to improving environmental health by addressing the unique waste and water quality challenges that remote small communities and tribes face. 

We do this in a variety of ways – offering community-based training and assistance programs, designing local, regional and statewide programs, and performing research aimed at improving understanding of circumstances and dynamics that impact the safety, strength, and sustainability of local community waste programs, and developing a better delineation of ecological and health risks posed by waste disposal practices and infrastructure. 

The common thread in our efforts is where we place communities in the problem solution. At Zender, we see local program capacity as the key for sustainable community well-being and local ecological health. That is why we employ scientists and experts that are from, and/or live and work in, rural Alaska. The real knowledge to protect environmental health is there.

Whether isolated by land or water, rural and tribal communities are like island nations. While many commercial and governmental services can be provided from a regional base, waste management cannot. To safeguard against injury and communicable disease, community waste requires daily attention so that local program capacity is critical. Additionally, tribal and many rural communities depend heavily on hunting, fishing, gathering, and harvesting of local foods.  Proximity of disposal sites near water and land engender multiple ways in which the community can be exposed to harmful chemicals – such as ingestion of contaminated water and food.

We address these issues through:

Water, Waste, and Program Management Training Free-of-Charge.

Environmental and natural resource staff, waste managers, landfill operators, waste collectors, and Councils learn the skills they need to design, fund, and manage the best waste and water quality programs possible for their community.  Small, isolated communities are unique. Template trainings taken from elsewhere don’t work. We design our trainings to address the real world settings and issues of our audience, and to do so in a practical and interactive way. 

Community Assistance Program Free-of-Charge.

The attainment of local program independence is made difficult by countless factors, including small population size, difficult logistics, inadequate landfill equipment, poor landfill performance design, regular flooding & fires, permafrost loss, poor broadband, lack of facilities & storage area, unplumbed homes, competing sociocultural wellbeing priorities, job turnover, and environmental health disparities. Every community is left with a set of unique factors, including the staff experience to manage them. We begin work where the community is at, identify together what is needed, and partner on the effort until that goal is reached

Rural Environmental Technician Training

In collaboration with the University of Alaska, Fairbanks and University of Washington NIEHS Worker Training Program, we offer rural residents a 260 hour in-residence Rural Environmental & Spill Response Technician job training program that includes an Occupational Endorsement by the University of Alaska, eleven college credits, and 15 state and national certifications. After graduating our Rural Alaska Community Environmental Job Training (RACEJT), students return to their communities to become landfill operators, Environmental Coordinators, Water Quality Samplers, Bulk Fuel Tank Inspectors, Equipment Operators, and Emergency Responders. Not only do students acquire the skills necessary to support their community’s environmental program, they are taught leadership & job readiness skills that support their job search, interview, hire, and career advancement process. RACEJT has over a 92% job placement rate, and leverages multiple funding sources to provide this comprehensive education free-of-charge.

Backhaul Alaska

Our involvement in Backhaul Alaska goes back to its inception in 2014 at the Bethel ‘Hagelund’ airport. A staff member at the time, Jacqueline Shirley, happened to be chatting with our honorable U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski about the excessive scrap and special waste lining roads and dumps because the communities had no means of getting it out. The Senator had a lightbulb inspiration to develop a program similar to Adopt a Highway – which she called Adopt a Barge, and after asking multiple tribes their opinions about the idea, a movement was borne. We convened meetings at the Senator’s office between transporters, recyclers, and community backhaul experts to frame out how the system could best work and with the Solid Waste Alaska Taskforce (SWAT) presented that frame at multiple workshops and conferences to Industry and community stakeholders to garner and incorporate their feedback. Funded by the UEPA Region 10 and Headquarters, we compiled the draft plan for Backhaul Alaska and with SWAT began working on pilot program funding. Our role in Backhaul Alaska evolved to the present day as administrators of the pilot program and its beginning rollout phase on behalf of SWAT, whose project Backhaul Alaska is.  The overall direction of the program is overseen by SWAT, so that it continues to be a collaborative project as intended, with multiple checks and balances incorporated into its operation that ensure community needs are foremost in its design. Backhaul Alaska today is made possible today by organizations and communities throughout Alaska, and is primarily funded by US DOT Pipeline & Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), Kawerak, Inc, Responsible Battery Coalition (RBC), and USEPA Region 10 and Headquarters.  www.backhaulalaska.org 

Solid Waste Alaska Taskforce (SWAT) 

It is simple to formulate a view about what the unique and heterogenous conditions and challenges in Rural Alaska are, and what is needed to address them. But at Zender we realize that a single viewpoint does not work – the dynamics are too complex, and no one community, entity, or individual is likely to have a complete answer or one that within their complete control.  The SWAT Executive Board is a group of representatives from the solid waste service providers who work statewide – Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium (ANTHC), State of Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (ADEC) Solid Waste Program, Kawerak, Inc., a regional ANCSA non-profit providing backhaul models used statewide, and our organization. SWAT members work independently with communities through their institutions, and come together to identify areas of commonality where institutional leveraging can help a single community to an entire region. Additionally, we are able to pool our experiences to identify patterns and emerging conditions that are difficult for a single community to control and potentially best addressed at a macro-level. Project and program ideas that have developed as a result include Backhaul Alaska,  Product Stewardship, and the Solid Waste Summit Technology Showcase. www.907swat.org 

Collaborative Research 

We pride ourselves on continually seeking ways to better address isolated community environmental health issues.  We are privileged to work with tribes and indigenous communities throughout Alaska and beyond in waste management issues. Our core training and assistance programs allow us as scientists and engineers to view and identify waste and water quality problems and solutions from a regional and statewide level. When we identify a common roadblock to community program improvement, we seek to remove it through collaborative research projects and initiative white papers. While we do not conduct research for research sake, we will work with any one and any entity on any idea with promise for an affordable waste program or system offering ecological and human health improvement. The communities we work with generally face overwhelming challenges related to climate change, sociocultural upheaval, economic stress, and multiple health disparities. Unfortunately, waste management is yet another challenge piled on, and its unique technical, infrastructural, jurisdictional, and economical burden is difficult to unpack and better adjust the load.  But we believe the solution(s) does exist — or will soon exist because the communities we work with possess a core deep environmental knowledge, how it works, and what will work in it, and they will continue to persist regardless of any circumstance, past, present, or future. In this ‘time immemorial’ context, the solution communities seek is there now. At Zender, we believe in community and we believe we can play a role in getting finding it.

Tribal Toxics Exposure Work

The health and ecological risks with which we are concerned largely emanate from a set of unique exposures to toxic chemicals that the largely tribal communities face. The Toxics Substances Control Act (TSCA) is the environmental statute that governs the amount and type of chemicals allowed in nearly all of the products we buy. To assess whether a chemical is safe, or should be banned or managed, the USEPA Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics (OPPT) performs comprehensive risk assessments of each chemical.  Unfortunately, these assessments are not relevant to tribal lifeways, so that tribes are not represented in the final analysis of whether a chemical is safe.  We have the honor of working with the National Tribal Toxics Council (www.tribaltoxics.org), the Tribal Partnership Group for OPPT, in their efforts to advance the formal embedment of tribal-specific parameters and exposure scenarios into toxic chemical risk assessments carried out under TSCA. This important and vital effort is slowly rectifying the omission of tribal concerns and we are proud to contribute coordinative support and additional technical expertise. 

Organization History 

In 1998, Dr. Lynn Zender completed her Civil Engineering dissertation that built upon work performed with the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians in technically assessing open dumpsites and identifying the various legal, infrastructural, and sociocultural dynamics from which they result. This work led the Central Council of Tlingit & Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska to hire Dr. Zender and Simone Sebalo, the current Deputy Director, to conduct the first-ever statewide baseline assessment of solid waste management conditions in rural Alaska Native villages. At the time, technical assistance that addressed the unique conditions and circumstances that rural communities faced were altogether lacking, contributing substantially to what was overall a very bleak situation. Seeing the need for relevant guidance materials, the two formed Zender Environmental Science and Planning, and began volunteering their time to develop a library of factsheets, devoting thousands of hours over several years to this effort. Working with CCTHITA to develop the Solid Waste Alaska Network, these materials were placed online for use by community planners and landfill operators. In 2007, having realized that their work better fit the non-profit model, then ended the company in order to found the current non-profit, Zender Environmental Health and Research Group.

Board members 

The organization has four Board members whose background covers broadly the technical, financial, and practical aspects of Zender’s organizational mission. The Board advises on the direction of the organization, financing strength, and other topics central to Zender’s success. Dr. Zender is a Board member, but as Executive Director, is recused in matters of compensation, and exercises only a tie-breaking authority in other decisions.