Pohnpei, FM - Imagine sitting down at home for a relaxing evening on your porch. The gentle breeze runs its cooling fingers across your skin. Moon glow sparkles on the soft ripples of Pohnpei's peaceful lagoon. The stars are only just the slightest bit dimmer because of the company of that great light of the night. It's a wonderful evening marred only by one bothersome problem that simply can't be ignored. You turn to your loved one who is at your side, set to enjoy a pleasant evening together and whisper, though you're not entirely certain that you should, "Honey, what's that awful smell?"
"I am so glad you asked," she groans. "I didn't want to say anything. I thought it was you!"
The cloying odor of raw sewage is an all too familiar smell for some residents of Pohnpei, particularly for residents who live anywhere near the overflow pipes of Pohnpei Utility Company's sewer system.
When pumps at any of the seven "lift stations" fail in the PUC sewer system in Kolonia and in parts of Nett, raw sewage dumps out of overflow pipes into rivers or into the lagoon. The pipe in what has come to be called "China Town" dumps directly into the lagoon in the water behind Do It Best Hardware. Whether or not the over- flow pipes dump directly into the lagoon that is where the raw sewage ultimately ends up.
Lift stations are pumping stations that move raw sewage through the sewer lines on to the treatment plant. Because of the age of Pohnpei's pumps and the lack of spare parts, the pumps fail frequently. They run on electricity and when the power to the pumps fails, the pumps stop. Gravity takes over and the sewage runs out of the over- flow pipes directly into a river or into the lagoon. When power is restored the pumps do not automatically restart. They must be manually reset before they can start their seemingly invisible but vital work again.
One resident of Ku mwunlaid said that he has been pestering PUC, EPA, and any government official whose ear he can get for help in solving the problem in his area. When overflow pipes at the lift pumps situated on land near the INS Store stop working, copious amounts of raw sewage dump directly into a river. The river flows into the mangrove which is next to his house. Not only is the stench oftentimes unbearable but he says that he worries about the health risk especially in a time when cases of Hepatitis A are once again appearing in Pohnpei. He said that the problem has been ongoing for at least twenty years.
A resident in China Town said that his family has been driven off of their front porch because of the smell but he is mostly worried about the several people who everyday harvest crabs in the lagoon and sell them to the local markets.
Crabs are filter feeders. They are essentially the lagoon's garbage collectors and the crustaceans are not at all opposed to eating the raw sewage there.
Dr. Hedson of Pohnpei Public Health Services said that fecal coliforms that may be present in crabs that feed in water containing raw sewage can be killed by boiling them for 30 minutes. The problem is that most people stop cooking crabs after they turn red after just a few minutes of boiling. Crabs cooked longer than that are usually unpalatable. Dr. Hedson said that he was not aware of any cases of infections linked to eating crabs but that perhaps the fishermen who tend their crab pots in the part of the lagoon into which the Kamar River flows should be warned.
During the week of June 1 there were at least three lift stations with problems. The lift station in Lewi near the State Hospital continues to have problems due to a lack of spare parts. General Manager Feliciano Perman said that he has instructed his staff to order a new pump. Each pumps costs approximately $15,000. Two other lift stations were repaired during the week. The pump station in Ohmine near the INS Store has been repaired along with the one at China Town.
The Environmental Protection Agency has a crew that goes out daily looking for violations of EPA regulations regarding outhouses and pig pens that are too close to the water. Those structures must by law be situated at least 50 feet away from the water. EPA has issued letters of warning to violators and some people have been fined. EPA is empowered to fine violators as much as $100 per day if their warnings regarding violations go unheeded. PUC is not exempt from that regulation but when they are alerted to problems they tend to work quickly to resolve them.
On Thursday June 4 when we visited the area where the China Town overflow pipe dumps its sewage into the lagoon when the lift station is not working, there was nothing coming from the pipe though the stench was still nauseating. Several hours later an EPA spokesman said that his crew had just come from the area and had been alarmed to see that the pipe was once again dumping human detritus into the lagoon. He said that they would alert PUC to the problem.
Minutes later Perman said that he had sent a crew to the lift station. The power to the pump had tripped. After the crew reset the pump the sewage overflow stopped.
PUC's Perman said that the problem of pollution is not just a PUC problem. "There are so many people polluting the place but the people always jump on PUC," said Perman. "PUC always fixes problems when they come up but other people just ignore them."
As always, there is a money problem. PUC does not charge its customers for use of the sewer system. Money to operate and maintain the sewer system comes from power and water customers who subsidize the system even if they don't have access to it.
Perman said that PUC has made arrangements with the Asian Development Bank for a $10 million loan to upgrade and expand Pohnpei's sewer system. He said that the Utility will soon go to bid on that project.
Just the same, when power is out, lift stations can't work.
PUC submitted a report to the Governor's office that listed each power outage that occurred in the months of March, April, and May along with the causes of those outages. There were 28 outages reported during that time ranging in duration from one minute to several hours. Seven of the outages in three months were caused by equipment malfunctions.
Perman said that three of the generators at the power plant are over 20 years old. They obtained two more of them in 1992. Two others were acquired in 1994. He said that the generators should be overhauled every three to four years but that has not been done. An overhaul of just one of the generators costs approximately $350,000.
21 of the power outages on the outage report were not caused by PUC. Nearly all of those outages were caused by interaction of the power system with trees.
He said that previously when PUC linemen went out to maintain the lines by cutting tree branches that were too close to the power lines they often met with a great deal of resistance from property owners. The utility has begun recently to deal with the problem in a more culturally acceptable way.
Representatives from the utility arrange to meet with Kohsap chiefs where they explain the problem to them. PUC asks the chiefs to select someone from the village to clear the lines. When they have done that, the utility draws up a contract with the selected party and then pays them to perform the service under the supervision of an experienced lineman.
Perman said that in the six places where the utility has handled things in this way he has noticed that property owners are more understanding and that trees are more aggressively trimmed than the utility might have previously felt comfortable doing themselves. He said that the results of the trimming last longer and there is much less animosity than there was before.
PUC started the program in Madolenihmw because it is the furthest away from PUC and when there are problems there it takes workmen a long time to get there to solve the problems. Trees have been trimmed in Wapar, Mand, and Temwen in Madolenihmw. In Sokehs trees have been cleared by residents of Tomwara, and Lewetik. Clearing of trees between Palikir and Iohl is currently in process.
Perman said that as far as he was aware PUC had not been notified about the problems that occurred between June 1 and 4. He urged the public to notify PUC if they notice problems with sewer overflows. They can be contacted at 320-2374.