Installing in Paradise

Dan Taylor’s Acme Environmental Solutions is raising water-quality standards by building a vast array of modern and effective water and decentralized wastewater systems on the Caribbean island of Roatan.
Installing in Paradise
Workers prepare trenches for an Infiltrator Systems drip system on Maya Key, a small island next to Roatan. The island is a tourist attraction with seals and other animals and is patronized by cruise ship passengers. (Photos by David Steinkraus)

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About a dozen years ago Dan Taylor and his wife Sam began thinking of retirement. As a civil engineer he had spent decades moving from place to place and project to project, often in Northeastern Africa and the Persian Gulf. And after years of living near the equator, this Montana native had little desire to return to a land of snow and ice.

The Taylors settled on the tropical island of Roatan, part of the Bay Islands chain in the western Caribbean, and part of Honduras, with its mainland 40 miles away. Retirement didn’t quite work out to be retirement. They have some land, but their retirement home remains unbuilt. Instead, Dan Taylor is helping to build a country.

ENGINEERING EXPERTISE

The problem that set Taylor on the road to creating Acme Environmental Solutions was a lack of engineering services. He and his wife bought a piece of property with a view of the ocean and in the distance the cloud-wreathed mountains of the mainland. They intended to develop it with condos and houses, their own among them, but there was no company to do the preliminary engineering work.

So Taylor formed a company to do his own work. You can see what’s coming. At each step in the project Taylor couldn’t find the services he needed, so he did it himself with another company, and a few workers, and a few more workers, and then he started helping other people. Acme has grown into the premier water and wastewater services provider on the island. Taylor has 23 key employees plus a varying number of laborers hired by the job.

Working in Central America poses a much broader set of challenges than businesses encounter in North America. But the rewards are also much greater. You can hear it in Taylor’s voice and see it in his face as he drives the island, waving to acquaintances and steering clear of pedestrians, chickens and wandering dogs as he bubbles over about how his company solved one problem and the next. He does what few people have a chance to do: build completely from scratch and use the best, most responsible and most creative options for any given situation.

Because of the company’s technical expertise, Acme designed, built and also runs the small activated sludge plant recently installed to clean up the near shore waters at the community of West End on the island’s tourist-heavy southwestern tip. It runs the wastewater and water systems at the Carnival cruise port of Mahogany Bay, and recently completed the design and installation of drinking water, wastewater and fire suppression systems for a cruise port called Banana Coast, located on the Honduran mainland. Acme also runs the desalination plant that supplements the water supply for the island community of Coxen Hole. The company has designed, built or been involved in nearly all the plants at resorts throughout the island.

Taylor has a couple of vacuum trucks and does some wastewater pumping, but the largest portion of his business has become the Engineering/Projects Division led by engineer Samuel Rivera.

SETTING THE STANDARD

Although Roatan has a strong tourist industry and a population of 60,000 to 100,000 (firm numbers are hard to come by), it is a study in contrasts between the developed and developing worlds.

Near the middle of the island is the cruise port, leased to Carnival Corp., built with modern conveniences and to high standards. Acme installed a system that took the existing pipes and channeled them into a pair of Cromaglass 12,000 gpd sequencing batch reactors that are fully aerobic but have no denitrification cycles. Water coming out of the system is sent through 2,500 feet of perforated pipe to irrigate banana trees, sugar cane and lemon trees that line the slope next to the cruise ship docks.

Acme also runs the port’s water system. “The technical end of running the water system is not that challenging, but the sense of responsibility is,” Rivera says. Operators check for contamination twice a day if there are no ships in port. When ships dock and pour several thousand tourists into the port, operators check the output quality every 30 minutes.

The contrast is about half a mile inland and a few hundred feet up the island’s coral backbone. Santa Maria is a community of small houses on dirt streets. Drinking water comes from higher up on a neighboring property and is brought to individual blocks with lengths of 2-inch PVC pipe slung across the road like utility lines before they bend downward and disappear underground where half-inch lines supply the houses. Concrete septic tanks are molded into homes as part of their porches and foundations, and if the level in the tank gets too high there’s a 4-inch pipe sticking out the side to let liquids flow away downhill.

“See that puddle in the middle of the road? That’s not exactly rainwater,” says Rivera.

Children play in it, and chickens drink it. Progress is coming, though slowly. An environmental impact fee assessed by the government for the Mahogany Bay cruise port was used to start a wastewater project in Santa Maria. Acme was awarded the contract to design and install the wastewater collection system as well as a part of the treatment plant. A large tank was installed that will become a trickle filter taking water from a sludge blanket reactor and diverting 20 percent of the treated water to a clarifier before it goes to either a chlorine or UV disinfection system.

DESIGN FLEXIBILITY

The decision on final treatment hasn’t been made, but then the rest of the plant isn’t done either because there’s no money. This plant was designed about seven years ago, but that design depended on numerous lift stations throughout the hilly community, and the energy cost was prohibitive. Electricity on Roatan comes from a utility company running diesel generators, and because every drop of fuel has to be shipped in, the result is power at about 44 cents per kilowatt hour. The new system Acme designed and is putting in requires only one pump to recirculate wastewater in the trickle filter. Gravity does the rest.

“The various codes in the U.S. make designing and installing decentralized systems really hard to do,” Taylor says. “Honduras has some pretty good environmental law, but they don’t have good compliance enforcement.”

As a developing nation Honduras lacks the money for inspectors, but for Taylor and his staff, this absence of regulation creates one of the opportunities that make working on Roatan so rewarding. Acme can dream up smart, creative and lower-cost solutions for its customers. As long as plans pass the test of common sense with municipal officials, there are no limits.

DON’T WASTE THE WATER

Reusing water is a trademark of the systems Taylor and Rivera have designed on Roatan. Although it is a tropical island with about 90 inches of rainfall a year, Roatan is soil sprinkled over a base of old coral and clay. Some water penetrates to aquifers, but the drenching tropical rains send a lot of runoff to the sea. As the island’s population grows so does demand for water, and more people bring more impervious surfaces that increase runoff. They also increase demand on the island’s aquifers, which in some places are turning brackish as saltwater flows in to replace all the freshwater pumped out.

The best illustration of how Taylor addresses these issues can be found in his own development in Keyhole Bay. The partially built complex consists of condo buildings and private stand-alone homes.

Wastewater from each home goes to a 600-gallon primary treatment tank, then to a 1,200-gallon Delta DF-60 ATU. Treated effluent from a group of six homes feeds wastewater to a central clarifying tank with a float-activated pump and disk filter. Treated water goes into a 2-inch main leading back to the homes and to a Netafim underground irrigation system for planting beds.

Each condo building has a 3,000 gpd system consisting of a 3,000-gallon primary treatment tank and two Delta DF-150s in parallel. The flow is combined in the tertiary clarifier, and this water is also sent to irrigation.

Community drinking water comes from three sources: roof runoff, brackish well water run through a reverse osmosis plant and surface catchments. Each of three condo buildings is designed with a 125,000-gallon cistern, and community covenants require a minimum of one 15,000-gallon cistern at each freestanding house. Surface runoff is collected from the roads and grassy areas and from three earthen dams that control water flowing down the steep valleys from neighboring properties.

A series of 34 underground storage tanks ranging in size from 512 cubic feet to 6,144 cubic feet, and with a total capacity of about 1.2 million gallons, are connected in series along the sloping development. Each tank not only stores water but acts as a settling tank to keep contaminants from the surface runoff out of the water. Excess water flows to the ocean, as does excess water from the osmosis plant. But before it reaches the sea it’s all mixed and diluted with salt water.

EDUCATED WORKERS A KEY

Labor is easy to find on Roatan. Skilled labor is a completely different matter. Even the simple qualification of a driver’s license is not common. Workers with high school degrees are rare, so Acme has a program to develop its people. On the wall of Taylor’s office is a large whiteboard listing employees, their current skills, where they should be in three years and the training they will need to get there.

Taylor and his top staff watch employees. Those who have an aptitude for working with machinery or a curiosity to know more are offered skilled work and training. The company runs its own driver training program for employees and contractors. People in contact with sewage get vaccinated for hepatitis and tetanus.

Taylor provides cost-of-living raises pegged to the country’s consumer price index. He has also given his operations and business managers stock in the company. “They have purchased additional stock when it became available. It goes back to being the smart thing to do and a good way to do business. If people are owners they care; they act like the owners they are; they perform at their best,” he says.

With a focus on education, Acme has another vital tool: the Pumper & Cleaner Expo (now called the Water & Wastewater Equipment, Treatment & Transport show). “That isn’t just important. That’s really critical for us. That’s how we get our training,” Taylor says. Though it’s an expensive trip, he brings employees to the show. His technical staff attends Education Day seminars. Staff benefits immensely from talking informally with other professionals about how they solve problems.

Taylor also goes through every page of every issue of Onsite Installer, Pumper and the other COLE Publishing magazines, takes them apart, and passes articles on to his staff to critique and discuss in meetings.

The next challenge is transforming Acme from a small business to a medium-sized business. Taylor, Rivera and Marcia Webster, the business manager, are developing operating procedures, position descriptions, human resources procedures, standardized forms, salary categories and fair policies.

ISLAND-READY RIGS

Acme uses two vacuum trucks: a 2001 Ford F-650 with a 1,600-gallon waste/550-gallon freshwater aluminum tank and a 1999 Ford F-800 with a 1,100-gallon waste/500-gallon freshwater steel tank. The trucks were built out by Satellite Industries with Masport pumps. In addition there is a Satellite slide-in unit with a 600-gallon aluminum tank and Conde pump (Westmoor Ltd.). This year it will be placed on a four-wheel-drive Ford F-450 to drive onto beaches for various jobs.

Trucks are small by North American standards to maneuver easily on the island’s narrow, twisting, unimproved and often-steep roads. Technicians use the big truck for septic work, and the little one for servicing the company’s 124 Satellite restrooms.

Acme also has a pair of Isuzu flatbed trucks used for hauling supplies and equipment and to take workers to and from jobs. There’s also a half-ton diesel Nissan pickup used to ferry parts and two diesel Toyota pickups used by the engineers and project managers.

MAKING A DIFFERENCE

Taylor came into the business with knowledge of how to do water and wastewater well, and he was first to market. It has put Acme in the enviable position of setting the standards for water and wastewater development on Roatan. Many times local officials aren’t comfortable approving a set of plans submitted for permitting unless they see a stamp showing that plans have been reviewed by Acme, even if a system was designed by someone else, Taylor says.

“We have to be real careful that we protect our reputation and eliminate any appearance of conflicts of interest. As long as our recommendations are seen as being for the greater good of the island and the environment, we get along just fine.”

Even environmentalists (they call themselves reef-huggers) respect Acme and what it has accomplished. And it is no small problem Acme is helping to fix. The United Nations has cited the small islands of the Caribbean as a place where sanitation is lacking. Contaminated water becomes a source of disease after severe storms, and it endangers the health of the coral reefs that provide food and attract tourist dollars.

“The long-term sustainment of the turquoise waters we enjoy is a goal we work to achieve every day. We don’t have to shovel snow; we get to look at the beautiful waters that others only get to dream about. But with that gift comes an immense responsibility and opportunity,’’ Taylor says. “Our permitting scheme on the island allows us to design and deliver the systems that are the best for our clients, not what some out-of-date code book tells us to do. It’s really a lot of fun. You can do smart things without hindrance.”

As for the retirement Taylor was planning for … well, maybe another time.



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