Tribal Council asks governor to shut down Bethel liquor store
The governor plans to invite leaders from Bethel and a nearby tribal council to talk after the Napaskiak Tribal Council passed a resolution urging Governor Bill Walker to shut down Bethel’s liquor store.
Napaskiak is a dry village just a few miles from Bethel, which in 2016 started selling liquor for the first time in 40 years. Tribal administrator Sharon Williams says many people make the 10-minute snow machine drive into town, buy alcohol at AC Quickstop, and then try and drive home intoxicated. Williams says in the past 17 months, five of the village’s roughly 400 people have died because of alcohol they consumed in Bethel.
This week, the five members of the Napaskiak Tribal Council unanimously passed a resolution asking the Governor to declare a state of emergency because of the number of alcohol-related deaths.
Last year, Governor Walker declared the opioid crisis a disaster in the state of Alaska. However, Williams says in the area surrounding Bethel, the crisis-- thanks to Bethel’s liquor store-- is worse.
The resolution says that since the liquor store opened, Napaskiak and the surrounding villages have seen an uptick of caseloads in the Indian Child Welfare Act program, attendance at school's dropping because kids aren’t getting enough sleep thanks to alcohol-related disturbances, and burnout from local police and troopers, thanks to an increased caseload.
In January, members of the all-volunteer Bethel Search and Rescue team started the year busier than ever. In just six days, they received more than a dozen calls for help and all of them had one thing in common: alcohol.
“Alcohol has always been available, but it’s become more readily available now,” Mike Riley, president of Bethel Search and Rescue, said.
BSAR has about 120 members, but the list of people who can respond quickly is closer to 20 because most of them have families and full-time jobs. Most of the calls come in the early morning hours and searches can last for hours. Even though many have been experiencing burnout, when the call for help comes, they always have volunteers show up. That’s because many of them have lost someone close to them.
Members of the Napaskiak Tribal Council say they deserve to have their safety and welfare addressed by the state because the state approved the liquor license that enabled the current alcohol disaster.
A spokesperson for the governor says that while questions of the liquor store are better addressed at the community level, the governor plans to invite the tribal council and city of Bethel together.
Friday afternoon, the owner of the liquor store released the following statement:
Alaska Commercial Company (ACC) is aware of the issues created by alcohol in small communities such as Bethel and is committed to being a responsible business owner and neighbor. ACC is also committed to having an ongoing dialogue with the City and local law enforcement to ensure it addresses any ongoing public safety concerns. ACC has demonstrated its dedication to being a good steward in the community by voluntarily having more restrictive operating hours than permitted by law. ACC would also like to work with the villages to better ensure alcohol is consumed responsibly and safely. Napaskiak Tribal Council suggested there are ways to regulate alcohol sales and we are very receptive to addressing with them. We see the recent creation of a community task force, of which our store manager has been invited to be a member, as an opportunity to help improve the community of Bethel and surrounding villages and believe that these types of efforts will help to reduce many of the social concerns.
While ACC is currently the only liquor store operating in Bethel, two additional retailers have been granted licenses and will be operating soon. As long as legal sales of alcohol are permitted in Bethel, we believe it is in the community's best interest to allow ACC to operate as we have a track record of being a responsible operator as we have never been cited for alcohol related violations by the City or the State.
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