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2011: Katie Puckett Reporting From Honduras

Back in Tegucigalpa

It seems that my hopes of finding the time and energy to update the blog regularly while working in Las Vegas have been quashed. We're now back in Tegucigalpa, where we're regrouping with Luis and tying up loose ends before heading back to Boston tomorrow, three days ahead of schedule. We spent a couple hours this morning wandering around downtown Tegucigalpa with Jorge and Camilo, two of the UPI students working with us. It was a huge change of pace from the small, rural villages we've become accustomed to. This afternoon we met with Jessica Castillo of PRONADERS (Programa Nacional de Desarrollo Rural Sostenible, the National Program for Sustainable Rural Development), the organization that provided funding for the Las Casetas treatment plant. From the sound of it, they are planning to begin renovating the system soon, once they have received final government approval.

Yesterday we spent most of the day driving from Las Vegas to Tegucigalpa and relaxing at the hotel, but first we stopped by AMUPROLAGO (the Association of Municipalities for the Protection of Lake Yojoa). There we spoke to Victor Ortiz and Oscar Carranza, who provided us with some valuable information pertaining to the nutrient loading in the lake, then we took us on a brief boat tour. Despite the greenness of the water in many areas (a result, according to AMUPROLAGO, of an overabundance of nutrients), it was gorgeous being out on the lake.

Lake Yojoa

On Tuesday we got off to a fantastic start by making Kent hold a 4.5-gallon bucket under two streams of virtually untreated wastewater -- effluent from the Las Vegas Imhoff tank and collector system -- in order to get flow estimates for these systems. Needless to say, he did not enjoy it.

Kent hold a 4.5-gallon bucket under two streams of virtually untreated wastewater

That afternoon we visited Aquafinca once again, where we spoke to Ernesto Vargas a second time. He provided us with some documentation on the different streams and rivers that flow into (and consequently pollute) Lake Yojoa.

Monday began with a brief meeting with Alejandra Gomez, environmental director for the AMPAC mine in El Mochito. We arranged for a tour of the mine's waste treatment facilities in the afternoon. In the meantime, we headed back to Las Vegas and met up with Santiago Hernandez, head of Las Vegas' water department, who showed us some of the septic tanks in El Mochito and San Juan. Overall, they're in pretty bad shape; apparently something like 90 percent of them have collapsed. There was some talk of plans to link these two towns up with Las Vegas' wastewater treatment facility, but considering the amount of work it's going to take just to get the Las Vegas Imhoff tank up to par to treat Las Vegas' wastewater, I don't think that's really feasible at this juncture.

At 2:30 we began our arranged tour of the AMPAC mine's treatment facilities. Effluent from the mine is of potential concern in terms of its impact on the water quality in Lake Yojoa, particularly when it comes to heavy metals. However, the company does seem to run a pretty tight ship when it comes to dealing with their waste. Wastewater is chemically treated before being either sent back to the mine (as fill) or to several tailings ponds, where sedimentation occurs. Basically, all of the solids are allowed to settle out, and the water that is then discharged into the river (which eventually flows into Lake Yojoa) is tested routinely to make sure all applicable standards are met. From what we were told, they consistently meet all required standards.

Here's what their newest tailings pond looks like, installed about two years ago:

AMPAC's tailings pond

Another interesting aspect of the mine was their "Orchidarium," where they grow plants to make up for those destroyed in the mining process.

The Orchidarium

And finally, we visited a spring that is a source of water for both the mine and Las Vegas.

Water source for the mine and Las Vegas

And in terms of safety, it looks like the mine is doing pretty well overall. They've got a great big sign out front that displays the number of days without serious accidents in all of the various sectors:

Mine safety sign


The previous day, on Sunday, we revisited the Las Casetas plant. Heber provided us with a ladder, with which we were able to climb on top of and look inside the large tank. This gave us a much better idea of how the tank was intended to operate, although we still have some lingering questions, which hopefully will be answered by looking through the original plans for the plant, which we received from PRONADERS today.

Tank at Las Casetas plant

Touring the Las Casetas plant

Touring the Las Casetas plant

While we were at Las Casetas, Heber also took us behind one of the restaurants to look at the failed collection tank. It was built below capacity and was unable to handle rising water levels in the lake.

Failed collection tank at a restaurant in Las Casetas


Failed collection tank at a restaurant in Las Casetas

Saturday's main event was revisiting the Imhoff tank in Santa Barbara, which we'd stopped by at one point the previous week. While we were there, Marvin and Jorge helped us map out the plant in detail, and Kent and I outlined the piping and brainstormed some suggestions for repairs and maintenance.

The Imhoff tank in Santa Barbara

The Imhoff tank in Santa Barbara

The Imhoff tank in Santa Barbara

We also tracked down the effluent pipe to where it empties into an adjacent stream, in the hopes that we'd be able to take flow measurements there, but it turns out that it juts out over some steep and slippery rocks in such a way that it's nearly impossible to get to. Unfortunately, this little hitch kept us from being able to measure flow rates there.

Effluent pipe in Santa Barbara

So tomorrow we're heading home, and I still haven't had a chance to write about everything we've done. Once I'm back in Boston -- or maybe if I'm sitting around at the airport in Miami tomorrow during our layover -- I'll write another entry to fill in the gaps.

Buenas noches!

Rain or shine

Today started out rather gloomy; it rained all day yesterday for our drive to Las Vegas, and as of this morning, it seemed the pattern would continue. Around 8 AM we found ourselves wandering around the Las Casetas treatment plant in a light rain, attempting to take decent notes without getting too wet. Kent and I took a gander at the piping throughout the system to try to get an idea of how it was designed for water to flow through, while Jorge and Marvin, two UPI students who are accompanying us for the weekend, took measurements and sketched out a detailed diagram of the plant. While we were working, we came upon this little guy:

Lizard at Las Casetas

He seemed absolutely unfazed by our presence and just sat there while Kent nearly  stepped on him.

After taking a look around the plant, we talked to Heber again (I previously misspelled his name as Eber), who took us around behind one of the restaurants to look at the failed piping system. Basically, when the piping connecting the restaurants to the plant was installed, it was not to spec. They used black, flexible piping that has sagged in the sun, preventing the restaurants' wastewater from flowing to the plant. Here's what a bit of it looks like:

Las Casetas piping

After this little adventure, we visited a little internet cafe near our hotel, which has turned out to be very convenient for checking email and blogging. I'll probably be coming here to blog whenever I can. Plus, most of the guys who work here speak fluent English; one of them, Denis, has been very welcoming to us. We told him about what we're working on here and he even gave us his phone number in case we ever need help with anything. He's from the states but has relatives in Honduras and he's here visiting. Apparently people confuse him for a native a lot; I actually did the same, attempting to speak to him in Spanish the first time I went to pay for my internet usage.

Next we visited the Las Vegas treatment plant again, where a big surprise awaited us. There were about five men cleaning out the Imhoff tank - something that, according to past M.Eng. teams, very rarely happens.

Las Vegas employees cleaning the Imhoff tank

While we were there, we met and spoke to Santiago Hernandez, the head of the Las Vegas water department. He told us that the tank is cleaned every month and de-sludged every 2-3 months. This was not the case in the past, but if the tank is actually maintained that well in the future, it will certainly be an improvement. There are also plans to implement a new system for de-sludging, because several of the sludge valves had been stolen. (Apparently they're made of brass, so they're worth something.) Work on this is slated to begin next week, according to Mr. Hernandez, so we'll be checking back in for sure.

After this we visited Joel and Adalberto at the municipality office again to get a bit of information we had been missing. And finally, before dinner, we met with Roberto Andino and Javier Flores of AMPAC (the company that runs the mining operation in El Mochito) and scheduled a meeting with their boss, Alejandra Gomez, for Monday morning. They're also going to be taking some samples around the lake on Thursday (testing for general water quality parameters), and we hope to join them for that process as well.

We had dinner at the home of Dama Priscilla, a wonderfully kind woman who prepares meals for, well, anyone who stops by (for a small fee, of course). She'll be feeding us breakfast and dinner the whole time we're in Las Vegas.

I was planning to write more about what we did last week, but the Internet cafe is closing up in about 25 minutes and I think the others are waiting for me to finish so they don't leave me here by myself. Maybe I'll get a chance to write more tomorrow.

Blogging at Last!

It’s hard to believe that we’re nearly halfway through our trip to Honduras and this is the first good opportunity I’ve had to blog! We spent the first week traveling a lot and meeting with many people. So long nights on the road combined with spotty Internet access have made it difficult to find the time to update. I’m hoping that over the next week and a half, I’ll be able to update at least every other day. We’ll be staying in Las Vegas, and should be able to access the internet at either the municipality building or AMUPROLAGO’s office (the Association of Municipalities for the Protection of Lake Yojoa).

As of today, after discussing it with Dr. Eric Adams of MIT and Luis Eveline of UPI, we’ve decided to focus our work on one particular treatment plant: that of Las Casetas, the association of fish restaurants around Lake Yojoa. The plant was installed recently but never became functional due to issues with the piping as well as a general lack of communication among those involved with the project.

I’ll give a brief description of what we’ve done each day up until now, and from here on out I’ll try to provide daily, or at least every-other-daily, updates on the work we’ll be accomplishing starting tomorrow.

Day 1: January 4th

Our flight was somewhat delayed, but we landed in San Pedro Sula around 9:30 PM on Tuesday, January 4th. Ari Herrera, an MIT research affiliate from Texas (and native Honduran) who’s serving as an advisor to us during our first week here, was waiting there to greet us. After picking up a rental car, we were off to Progreso, Ari’s hometown, where we spent our first night in Honduras.

Kent, myself and Ari at the rental car booth.

Before hitting the hay at Hotel Plaza Victoria, Ari introduced us to some traditional late-night street-corner fare – baleadas (tortillas filled with fried beans, cheese, and meat) and jugo de naranja (orange juice, in this case in a plastic bag).

Enjoying our baleadas and jugo de naranja.

Day 2: January 5th

Our goal for today was to drive from Progreso to Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras, while stopping along the way to talk to a variety of the numerous stakeholders around Lake Yojoa. But first, a hearty plato tipico breakfast at a local eatery.

Enjoying a typical Honduran breakfast.

Our first meeting of the day was with Mario Ramirez and Ernesto Vargas of Aquafinca, a tilapia farming operation based in Borboton. Mario gave us a tour of the processing plant, which was actually pretty fascinating. The operation produces practically zero waste because of the practices employed by the company. For example, after fish remains are separated from the oily residues via centrifuge, the scales are sold to Chinese markets for use in beauty products and the skins to Italy for use in gelatin. Other fishy “leftovers” are used to make fish meal, which is sold as food for a variety of livestock. Then, glycerine, a heavy oil which settles to the bottom, is used to make soap for Aquafinca’s employees. The remaining oil is then processed to become biodiesel.

Mario and Kent show off a sample of the biodiesel produced by Aquafinca's waste-recycling program.

After our meeting with Aquafinca, we drove to Las Vegas, a major municipality of Honduras and a major contributor of pollution to the lake due to the lack of treatment of the town’s wastewater. There, we spoke to a couple of government employees, Joel and Adalberto, who gave us an overview of the current state of wastewater treatment in the municipality. Apparently the new mayor is very interested in the wastewater situation and hopes to make significant investments in improving it, though there is nothing in the budget for this year to complete any major work. We also got a chance to look at the Imhoff tank that currently "treats" the town's wastewater.

Ari and Kent atop the Imhoff tank.

Next, we visited Las Casetas, the fish restaurants around the lake (there are about 50 of them, all in a row!) and enjoyed a lunch of fried tilapia. We also met and spoke to (via Ari’s Spanish-to-English translation abilities) Eber, the vice president of the association of fish restaurants. He informed us about how the perceived quality of the lake has a big impact on the restaurant owners; last year there was a significant decrease in tourism to Las Casetas after some bad publicity that Aquafinca received regarding nutrient loading to the lake from fish feed and feces.

Enjoying our fried tilapia.

As the day drew to a close, we made our way to Tegucigalpa, several hours’ drive from the lake. There we met Luis Eveline, director of UPI (Universidad Politecnica de Ingenieria), the technical engineering university of Honduras), and his wife Carolina and son Jose. Luis has been and continues to be instrumental in UPI’s collaboration with the MIT M.Eng. program.

I think that’s all I’ll write for now, as we're about to head to Las Vegas for the next week, where the real work begins. I’ll talk about the rest of the meetings we’ve been having and how our work is going in my next update.

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Honduras is the second poorest nation in Latin America. The country has only one environmental engineer for every million citizens and most wastewater treatment facilities are poorly maintained and financed. RAS-HON, the Honduran water and sanitation network, wants help in assessing the state of wastewater treatment in the Lake Yojoa subwatershed in the western region. Two MIT CEE M.Eng. students — Katie Puckett and Kent Walker, with help from CEE's Dr. Eric Adams and MIT research affiliate Ari Herrera, will undertaking this project in January, in collaboration with the Polytechnic University of Engineering in Honduras (UPI).

Katie Pucket is a 22-year-old from Richmond, Va. who received her S.B. in environmental engineering science from MIT in 2010.