FAILING SAIPAN SEWER SYSTEM CAUSES SPILLS

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Ten miles of pipes need replacement

By Haidee V. Eugenio SAIPAN, CNMI (Saipan Tribune, Dec. 25, 2009) – In the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI), sewage collection piping failed for the sixth time in six months on Dec. 18, and the wastewater failures are continuing at an accelerated rate. Because of the sewage failures, the Commonwealth Utilities Corp.'s Wastewater Division has already far exceeded its repair budget.

These are among the new items contained in acting Gov. Eloy S. Inos's latest extension of declaration of a state of disaster emergency for the Commonwealth Utilities Corp. (CUC).

CUC's emergency declaration, which was first issued in August 2008, suspends procurement regulations for CUC to cope with the emergency, among other things.

Inos, in his 16-page emergency declaration extension on Dec. 23, said the CUC Wastewater Division must also respond to acid damage in the asbestos cement piping system, the product of over 30 years of anaerobic conditions in sewers.

This has caused significant damage to cement and metal infrastructure, so that key pipe systems have collapsed.

He said Dec. 18 saw the sixth sewage collection piping failure in six months.

"Failures will continue until 10 miles of sewer pipe are replaced. But replacement involves complex excavations, avoiding electric, phone and water utilities, blocking traffic, stopping the infiltration of seawater which damages treatment plant facilities, and pumping sewage around blocked and excavated areas," Inos said.

The acting governor said CUC's Wastewater Division also needs serviceable vehicles to move its workers to and from job sites.

Presently, six vehicles are in such bad shape that they are dangerous. The lack of vehicles raises costs and hurts service, as staff and materials cannot be brought to job sites on time.

Inos said sewage lift station failures also continue, with most pumping stations having only one of two required pumps installed.

"CUC has issued contracts to purchase 30 additional pumps; however, the lead time between issuance of the contract and pump arrival is over six months, so that CUC is still approximately three months out from pump arrival," he said.

The agency's engineer staff shortages also continue to hamper CUC's ability to anticipate and fix technical problems, but Inos said that significant engineering resources are already focused on addressing federal stipulated order issues.

The emergency extension came over a week after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency fined CUC US$29,000 for failing to submit a satisfactory facility oil spill response plan. This is just a fraction of the US$630,000 in penalties accrued as of Oct. 16 for CUC’s continued non-compliance with the provisions of two federal stipulated orders.

In March 2009, U.S. District Court for the Northern Mariana Islands (NMI) Chief Judge Alex R. Munson signed the stipulated order that sets requirements and deadlines for CUC to meet.

The order represents the agreement between the CNMI and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency based on the requirements of the Clean Air Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act. The stipulated order also provides a roadmap for providing improved water and sewer services in the CNMI.

Inos also cited CUC's hiring of technical experts to provide continued electric service.

In November, CUC replaced the power plant 1 anchor bolts, in order to stop the shifting and vibration that has ruined the plant; and foundation repairs to engines 1 and 8.

"This work has been successful. As of this month, Power Plant 1 Engines 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7 are available. Engine 8's critical foundation repair and anchor bolt replacement have been completed. The major engine overhaul is to begin immediately," Inos said.

The acting governor said in effect, CUC management, "with generous federal financial assistance, has brought its generation back from the brink of system failure."

"There are adequate reserves. If maintained properly, the system can provide the CNMI's citizens and residents with adequate power," Inos said.

CUC also noted that the typhoon season appears to be ending with no direct hits on the CNMI and the agency's power distribution system.

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