URI student leads effort to build wastewater treatment system for school in Guatemala

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Barrington native, Tiverton resident returns to finish project Aug. 1

KINGSTON, R.I. – July 6, 2012 — A school in San Mateo Ixtatán, Guatemala plans to install flushing toilets for the first time. A major step forward from the school’s traditional outhouses, the toilets threatened to create an environmental nightmare because workers planned to drain them into a nearby river. But for University of Rhode Island engineering student Marc Vigeant, it’s a solvable problem.

A native of Barrington who now lives in Tiverton, Vigeant leads the URI chapter of Students for Global Sustainability. For almost two years, the group of seven engineering students has met weekly to design a wastewater treatment system for the school.

At every turn, they surmount challenges unheard of in the United States. The school lacks reliable electricity, so students avoided electrical pumps by replacing them with dosing siphons that harness natural energy from gravity to provide flow. With no existing treatment infrastructure, the students designed a sand filtration system. Lacking plat maps, they traveled to Guatemala last summer to undertake their own survey and to gain a better understanding of the problem.

To pay for the project, the group received financial support from the URI College of Engineering and sold plastic cups, empty ink jet cartridges, old cell phones and broken laptops to a recycling company.

Now armed with money and plans, Vigeant and Dan Waugh of Barrington will travel to San Mateo Ixtatán in August to personally oversee the installation of their system, which will serve as a model for the community to reproduce.

“At first it seemed like an overwhelming project,” Vigeant says. “But after working on the design for a year and a half, the solution is becoming more and more palpable.”

The group received advice from Vinka Oyanedel-Craver, URI assistant professor of civil engineering, as well as Stephen Andrus and Phil Virgadamo, professional engineers at GZA GeoEnvironmental Technologies in Norwood, Mass.

“I’ve been really impressed with the students,” says Andrus, a URI alumnus. “They do a great deal of work, and they are very devoted to their cause.”

The students tackled the project at the urging of Vigeant. In the summer of 2010, he was interning at the R.I. Department of Transportation and another intern mentioned his school was undertaking engineering projects abroad. Vigeant fired up the URI website and discovered that Oyanedel-Craver has long labored to provide clean water in Guatemala.

By September, the civil engineering major mustered a group of peers that became an official student group. And this year, the group became affiliated with the national organization Engineers for a Sustainable World. For group members, sustainability has become a way of life. Vigeant finds himself trading paper plates for real dishes and cringes when people buy bottled water.

On his way to graduate school for master’s degrees in engineering and business, he aims to open an engineering firm specializing in installing renewable energy systems.

“I think we all have a duty to address the environment,” he says. “Civil engineers especially because we are ultimately responsible for the impact our infrastructure has on the environment.”

To learn more about the project or provide support, visit https://sites.google.com/site/uriesw/