Monday, May 20, 2013
While scores of college students enjoyed some fun in the sun over spring break, a few dedicated souls from the University of Maine were immersed in "septic system boot camp."
Honduran youths roll one of five septic tanks for a massive wastewater system designed and built by the UMaine chapter of Engineers Without Borders.
Since 2008, Engineers Without Borders at UMaine has worked on a project to build an effective sewage treatment system for a community in Honduras. Student members have designed as well as funded the project.
"I was impressed with the students," said Albert Frick, who operates Albert Frick Associates in Gorham and served as field mentor. "It was a great experience for them. They got as much out of it as the Hondurans."
The large-scale project took four years and $40,000 to complete. With assistance of mentors and a faculty adviser, students had significant tasks before them. Such was the scale of it that Honduran engineers had never seen a subsurface wastewater disposal system of this size or sophistication. More than 1,000 cubic yards of sand, 300 cubic yards of stone and five large septic tanks along with several hundred feet of 6-inch sewer pipe were incorporated to serve 28 dwellings.
During the 2011 spring break, EWB-UMaine began to construct the system; this year, students returned to finish the sewer line, septic tank and leach fields. Their final accomplishment was to connect the houses of the village.
The living conditions of the locals left their mark on everyone involved. Dulce Vivir de Copan is a poor and remote village in the Honduran mountains. It is about a four-hour bus ride south of the city of San Pedro Sula. Rita Cooper of Sebago served as project leader and will graduate from UMaine this year with a degree in civil engineering.
"The villagers only get water sporadically," she said. "Initial water tests showed the presence of fecal coliform and E. coli. Their latrines were flooding into their yards; they were essentially living in their own waste."
In addition to the village septic system, the students also devised a storm water runoff plan.
In addition to Cooper, the 2012 field project team was composed of Nick Oberti, Whitney Chamberlain, Ruth Castillo and Dan Gerges. Mentors Frick, Kyle Coolidge of Woodard and Curran and Brendan McGuirl of Nickerson led the EWB 2012 field team. Joanna Miller, a former Peace Corps volunteer in Nicaragua who acted as a translator, joined the team in the field.
Translation proved vital, especially through various airport checkpoints. Students stuffed several large suitcases with laser levels, stadia rods, hand levels, tape measures and other necessary construction equipment. Passing through customs proved difficult both at the U.S. TSA and on the Honduran side. Luckily, translators effectively explained the nature and reason for this somewhat unusual passenger equipment.
Navigating customs was only part of the challenge. The local environment became somewhat dangerous during the end of the project's four-year run. The Peace Corps, known for its resilience in the face of the worst of situations, made the decision to leave Honduras about two months prior to the 2012 EWB-UMaine trip due to escalating violence and the non-lethal shooting of a Peace Corps worker. EWB-UMaine members discussed and evaluated the situation, appraised the numerous safety risks, and ultimately decided they were committed to completing the project with the Honduran community that was counting on them.
"We didn't want to be out at night," Cooper said. "It wasn't safe."
After working on the project during the day, the group gathered in their hotel at night, hung out and talked, reviewing the day's accomplishments as well as what lay ahead.
"It was nice to have that relaxing time together in the evening," Cooper recalled.
Overall, students had a memorable and professional experience with hands-on effort in both engineering and constructing the project. There was the added bonus of realizing the humanitarian value of their work too.
The Hondurans learned about construction, as well as how to maintain, operate and manage the modern sewage treatment project for sustainability. Thanks to the students, the villagers will benefit from an improved quality of life through the most basic of living requirements: safe drinking water.
Don Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Raymond. He can be reached at: