Treating Black Water
Bay Islands begin to deal with one its biggest threats to its Reef and Environment

May 15th, 2007
by Thomas Tomczyk

[private] v5-5-business-septic

In a 1999 study, PMAIB determined that the most damaging factor in the deteriorating of Roatan’s reefs is fecal contamination from human waste. While the threats to the island’s environment have changed since then, black water treatment remains both an environmental and a health concern for most home owners.

“Bottomless cesspools, under level septic fields and irresponsible drilling for well water is the biggest threat to Bay Islands,” says Bob Kable, owner of Island Environmental Products company. Since 50% of the Bay Islands population lives in Zone 1, their dwelling sites shouldn’t even have a leach field there. According to Kable, 90% of the septic systems in the Bay Islands have failed or are operating in violation of USA’s (Environment Protection Agency) EPA codes. As governments in developed countries got tough on septic offenders, a series of inventors began marketing their product to Central America. The late 1990s saw an explosion of Aeration Sewage Treatment Systems that are just now beginning to arrive in the Bay Islands. These systems use digesting bacteria that turn waste into CO2 and H2O.

The understanding of the sewage treatment issue is neither easy nor appealing to most people. Unlike developed countries where sewage treatment is left to the authorities, on the Bay Islands most home owners have to become aware what happens to their waste once it is flushed down their toilet.

The most frequent cause of sewage system failure is either a septic tank that becomes over filled with solids, or a leach field that becomes “glazed” with ground water building up with a dark liquefied sewage floating to the surface causing a foul odor. That failure is also a health hazard and can pollute ground water. While Roatan Municipal requires septic tanks with new house construction “there are no requirements as for the efficiency of the septic systems,” says Ian Drysdale, owner of Environmental Solutions, an environmental consultant business in West End.

PMAIB has attempted to alleviate the sewage problem in Roatan’s biggest urban area. Since 2005, Coxen Hole’s sewage treatment plant uses aeration pools where the sewage waste is dumped and then pushed by gravity into a series of evaporation pools. At the end of the process the diluted liquid is piped out into the sea where the strong West bound current takes it quickly out.

For areas where municipal black water system is not available, individual home owners have to rely on anaerobic and aerobic septic tanks for their homes. The oldest and largest aeration septic system on the Bay Islands is Delta Environmental. Bob Kable took over the representation of Delta in January 2005 and in 2006 alone sold 65 tanks on the Bay Islands and 50 on the mainland. “Delta systems have been the preferred choice among the builders, developers and home owner of several leading developments on Roatan and Utila: Lawson Rock, Keyhole Bay, Milton Point,” says Kable.

Delta has units that can serve as few as four people (400 gallons a day) and as large as units capable of servicing 23 people. One of the savings that come from using the sewage treatment come from the cutting the expense of constructing a leach field. “The liquid from the tanks is so clean, it can be run directly into the ocean,” says Kable. The Delta system is 10 times cleaner then USA’s EPA standards that can and often is used for above ground irrigation and as gray water.

Dan Taylor, an environmental engineer and developer of Keyhole Bay who uses Delta, is also adamant about building was is recommended by a manufacturer “treatment train.” Taylor says that many builders like to cut corners for financial reasons and never bother to install the four stage: Anaerobic tank- Aerobic tank- Chlorine treatment- polishing tank. While the Delta aerobic tank and installation costs $3,100, the entire four stage system for an individual home costs around $10,000. For Taylor this is a price to pay for a fully functional system.

For homeowners who want to improve the efficiency of their existing standard septic tank, Pirana aerobic system is an option. Jerry Fife, a driven, gray-haired inventor of Pirana has put it on the market in 2000 and today Pirana is distributed to over a dozen counties. Fife says that anaerobic septic systems just don’t work efficiently enough and the “failure [of this septic system] is imminent.”

The 36″ tall Pirana drum is designed to provide the optimum environment for facultative bacteria that are able to efficiently break down and clean the black water environment that surrounds them. The bacteria bag is placed inside a series of plastic membranes that allow for the water to circulate freely around them. An air pump, using around $5 of electricity a month, moves air from top to bottom 24 hours a day. The entire drum varies in cross section and is surrounded by an outer housing plastic shell.

Pirana is the only system available on the Bay Islands that can be placed in an existing septic tank. Its bacteria can go to work within hours and alleviate a problem caused by a badly designed or managed septic system. “Pirana is a fine solution for a legacy system,” says Taylor.

In 2005 Pirana was introduced to Roatan and Blue Bahia Resort became the product’s first client. Since then 38 clients have had Pirana systems installed, with the biggest one being Bananarama, with six septic tanks. To make the Pirana a more affordable solution, Drysdale is arranging for the purchase of Pirana to be done on credit thru LAFISE bank.

Another Aerobic Septic system available in the Bay Islands are Biodigesters, marketed and sold by Phillip Sampson, a English developer and environmental consultant who begun selling them in June 2006.

Biodigesters, invented by Mark Newbury are manufactured in Spain, assembled in England then reassembled and checked on site in Roatan. “Other systems might make the septic water clear and it doesn’t smell, but that doesn’t make the system good for the environment,” says Sampson. Unlike in the standard septic, Biodigesters take in water from all house receptacles and pumps it into its chamber. A 110 volt creates air bubbles that slowly rise thru the two chamber GRP plastic tank.

One of the innovations used in the Biodigester is “volcanic stone” that sits at the exit of the air pipe and creates microscopic bubbles, which according to Sampson, are better for the growth of the septic tank bacteria.

One of realities and disadvantages of having an Aeration Septic System is that one has to be constantly making sure that the bacteria are doing OK. Its wellbeing is affected by too much Clorox flushed down the drain. “Bleach and detergents are worst for any sewage system,” says Sampson. The bacteria culture, sitting idle for three-four weeks, can die, or go into hibernation mode. A pound of sugar can revive the dormant bacteria. Still, the reality is that most people that come to the Bay Islands are not used to being in any way involved in “managing their waste.”

“People are finally spending more money on septic systems. They are finally trying to protect the environment,” says Sampson, owner of Bay Islands Environmental Services. Taylor agrees: “The environmental enforcement of laws has made great strides in the last couple years,” says Taylor about the Roatan Municipal Environmental department. “Overall, Honduras has pretty good environmental laws, but the big problem is compliance.”

Aeration Septic Systems are not the only solution used in the Bay Islands. Three years ago Mango Creek in Port Royal decided to go with a series of composting toilet systems for its four water cabanas. Because of the steepness of the terrain and with the Lodge’s cabanas being right on the water, the waste would have to be pumped up, then gravity flowed down. The Lodge decided to think outside the box and purchase four Sunmar composting toilets for $1,000 each. The composting toilets fit right in with the Mango Creek Lodge eco image. “There is no odour and our garden plants love it,” says Ed Kattle, Mango Creek’s general manager. Every two weeks lodge employees empty the unit’s holding tank and spread its content in the garden area.

World bank is funding another black water solution on Roatan, this time in Flowers Bay. According to Dale Jackson, Roatan Mayor, around Lps. 24 million from International Development Bank’s money will be spent for providing septic systems to Flowers Bay area. According to Mayor Jackson, no aerobic septic systems will be installed even though around 90% of all the dwellings in Flowers Bay fall into Zone-1, less than 30 meters from the beach and little room for leach fields. [/private]

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