A Painful Upgrade
West End is Finally Getting a Sewage System, New Potable Water System and Likely a Paved Road. Getting there has not been Easy.

January 11th, 2012
by Thomas Tomczyk

[private]

Tourists hike between the mounds of dirt left from excavations.

Tourists hike between the mounds of dirt left from excavations.

West End residents took out their quad-bikes from their sheds, saddled their horses and tried to make the best out of it. Still, as tourist season picked up, their patience began to wear thin. Nearing the height of the tourist season the biggest municipal works project in Roatan’s history at Lps. 52 million is well underway.

Since October 2011 West End has gone from being a tourist attraction to a sight for sore eyes. The off-white beach sand has turned into a muddy gray mess. Local residents and tourists have jumped around trenches and potholes, hiked over mounds of dirt, ducked under heavy machinery, searched for shoes lost in mud. West End businesses have been hungry for all the cruiseshippers they could get, but the surrounding scenery hasn’t been very welcoming for those just trying to do some shopping or to find a restful beach spot.

But, it was all predictable and to be expected, with multiple Honduran companies working an overlapping site through pouring rain amid a tourist area in close proximity to the reef. IDECA was doing work on the potable water pipes and two 25,000 gallon water tanks. Calona y Kosmox (CyK) won the bid to install the sewage piping and stations. ACME Sanitation was awarded the construction of the sewer treatment plant itself.

Roatan Municipality, with a major public improvement project to provide and treat sewer, fresh water and storm water in West End, is trying to change recent history. But with Bay Islands and Roatan in particular having a poor track record for large infrastructure projects, it’s little wonder that the municipal project in West End has been received with skepticism. The waste management plant in Mud Hole has become a garbage dump and a safety hazard. Eight years’ worth of garbage, which will need to be restacked, are causing dangerous gasses, foul smells and decreased property values for miles around. The waste management plant in Santas Guardiola hasn’t opened after over three years, and its machinery is rusting away. The Utila municipal septic system, laid with a 6-inch main pipe has never worked and likely never will. The Coxen Hole municipal septic system designed for the entire town peaked at 3% of homes using it.

“It would be more beneficial just to throw these millions of dollars in the air above people’s heads,” said Eng. Samuel Rivera of ACME about the wasted money and lost public trust that many of these public projects have brought with them.

“Some people say that this is a very old, Third World design, and that they deserve better,” said Eng. Mauricio Diaz from IDECA. “Someone saw our worker fixing a cracked pipe with a lighter and asked why he wouldn’t want to use a proper tool for it.” Some West End residents have found the construction methods lacking. But Engineer Conception Vallecillo, the project’s consulting general manager, insists that the plans, concept and materials used are comparable to those of any developed country. With weekly meetings Eng. Vallesillo is trying to build a team and educate his Honduran subcontractors about the realities of working in a vulnerable environment.

Still, a rushed, unsupervised or poorly executed project can compromise any first world detail or prefabricated element. Worker safety, as well as the safety of West End residents and tourists, has not been the first priority in much of the road construction. Workers dig ditches without stabilizing walls against cave-ins and don’t wear safety harnesses for rescue in case of collapse. Several months after work began, and workers are still without some basic safety equipment. “They have to have at least a safety hat, gloves, boots, a visibility vest,” said a ZOLITUR representative, voicing his concerns at a weekly engineering meeting.

The ZOLITUR official also brought environmental concerns to the attention of the subcontractors: broken and wet cement bags lying on the sand, discarded oil filters seeping into the ground, and trash. Roatan Marine Park representatives say they find themselves constantly asking the construction companies to place barriers and filters limiting run-off of soil and chemicals into the sea. “They have been very responsive, but you have to ask them to do something or they will not,” said Andres Alegria of Roatan Marine Park.

According to Eng. Vallesillo no accidents have happened at the site, but he asked the subcontractors to ensure that their workers follow proper safety procedures. “If a worker dies it will be trouble, but imagine if a female tourist falls in and dies … that will be really bad,” said Eng. Vallesillo. And in response to environmental concerns, says Eng. Vallesillo, “I have to defend them and scorn them when they deserve it.”

Design:

A ditch is dug up by workmen whose only safety equipment is a reflective vest

A ditch is dug up by workmen whose only safety equipment is a reflective vest

The pump station system depends on a steady supply of electricity, and its proximity to tourist areas and the marine environment makes its failure especially troublesome. One alternative would be to have built a vacuum sewer system. While a vacuum system would be preferable, Honduran engineers have never built one in the country, and some are not comfortable with trying out new technologies.

According to Eng. Vallecillo the idea of the vacuum system was introduced by ACME, but the process was too far into the design phase to turn back. “It would cost much more. Still we are looking at using a vacuum system in other projects down the road,” said Eng. Vallecillo.

The Execution of Work:

The months of September, October, November and December broke record rainfall. Five feet deep ditches that had been dug out for piping filled with water and had to be re-dug using water pumps. Many worry about the project’s affect on the environment and reef. “Every time you disturb the surface you run a risk of contamination,” says Dan Taylor. The open trenches in West End have allowed chemicals from vehicles to be washed into the sea.

Sewage Treatment Plant:

“All gray work is completed, all the structure is up and 95% of pumps and electrical is ready,” said Dan Taylor. ACME began work on June 20 and expects to finish ahead of its December 20 deadline. “The only thing left to do will be the painting,” says Taylor about the plant designed to last 50 years and to handle refuse from 3,200 people.

Taylor insists that he will not make the plant operational until independent tests are made on water in Gibson Bight, which accommodates untreated sewer from Barrinche. “It’s a potential problem that was allowed to happen on their watch,” says Taylor observing that BICA, Roatan Marine Park and ZOLITUR had declined to test water in Gibson Bight. Taylor is concerned that if there are no tests of water done prior to the plant opening, pollution found in tests after the plant opens will be blamed on ACME. Taylor says that the water test taken by ACME had given results that water in parts of West End is not safe to swim in.

Potential Problems:

“ACME is really concerned about the possibility of getting storm water into the sewer lines which would lead to the failure of the waste plant,” said Dan Taylor, explaining that he had alerted both the Roatan Municipality and the project manager of the possible flaw in the design of the waste boxes.

There are other potential pitfalls, however. One of them is the real possibility of individuals connecting their storm water into the septic system. Taylor says that there is real temptation for people to get rid of their storm water and not to worry about it, whereas this could cause failure of the municipal waste plant, whose liquid would be too diluted to be efficiently treated.

The connection of homes and businesses away from their septic onto the municipal system will take several months. “It’s going to be a long time before all people get connected,” says Taylor. The situation is just like in Coxen Hole in 2005 when there was no budget to connect homes to the main sewer line.

Mayor Julio Galindo claims that an inspection would verify that no one would connect their storm water into the septic system. He also says that the extra cost to be paid by private property owners of connecting houses to the septic system would not prevent anyone in the long run from doing so. “You could connect to the septic for as little as Lps. 500,” said Mayor Galindo. Time will tell.

Workers dig a ditch in front of Roatan Marine Park

Workers dig a ditch in front of Roatan Marine Park

Not Part of the Project:

While the West End septic treatment plant has been designed for 3,200 people, most of them likely tourists, several hundred people in the poor Barrinche neighborhood have been left without ways of dealing with their sewer. Most houses and around 75 people of Barrinche, a poor, mostly Spanish neighborhood of West End, are not part of the West End septic project.

To pave, or not to pave?

What remains to be done sometime in 2012 involves the paving of West End road. Some people have never liked the idea of a paved road in the first place and believe that the road paving is still not certain. “Property owners-islanders–believe pavement signifies progress; but many business owners–foreigners who live off tourism and tourists as well–like the unpaved road,” says Taylor. “The biggest problem is the washboards, but they should be eliminated once storm water is dealt with.”

There are plenty of West End residents who would like to see the character of West End as a sand–really dirty sand in reality–road preserved. “In the US people see plenty of paved roads. They like seeing something different here, as long the road is maintained,” said Manuel Chavez, resident of Barrinche.

“The monthly upkeep of the [unpaved] road would cost $10,000, that would not justify the expense of spending a million dollars on [paving] it and the road would loose its character,” says Robbert Hin, owner of Blue Marlin. Hin expects to pay $200 a month for around nine years for the project. His property, a bar and restaurant, has a 15-meter frontage on West End road. “We will ruin this community with the road. The rents will become higher and businesses will go out of business,” said Hin.

There are plenty of voices looking forward to a hard top road. “It takes me as long to drive to Coxen Hole as it does to drive to my Uncle Foster’s place,” says Bush, about the traffic and road condition of the 700-meter road stretch in West End. He exemplifies the view of many in West End who see the infrastructure project and paved road as welcomed progress. “The road paving is really going to benefit everybody. It’s 15 years overdue.” [/private]

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