Utilities, Logistics, & Waste

If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably wondered about how the 2.4 square mile island of Midway generates its electricity and where the water comes from. To help explain, I decided to take a long bike ride around the island and snap some photos for you. Apologies in advance for the dreary imagery: it has been rather drizzly and cool the last week.

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Midway’s electric supply comes almost exclusively from diesel-powered generators. The large building above is where the older, larger, less efficient engines are located. Those engines powered the island when it was a bustling military base of over 4,000 people. The two small white shipping containers to the left of the building house the smaller, newer diesel generators that currently power the island and its 30-40 year round inhabitants (and me!).9881ba28-567d-4b54-b59c-6f9b450630f8

There are two large Fairbanks-Morse diesel generators inside the power building that are no longer in use. They are extremely inefficient by today’s standards and completely overkill for the amount of people currently living on the island.

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The tanks above (a total of eight of them) contain “JP-5” or diesel fuel used by the power generators and various transportation vehicles around the island. I’m not sure whether this fuel is suitable for jet aircraft, but I’m assuming we have some stored somewhere on the island if not in these tanks. There is also a smaller tank for gasoline, also known as “MOGAS” to islanders (does it mean motor gasoline?).

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North of the active runway at Henderson Field are three large tanks used to hold fresh water. Each tank has a capacity of approximately four million gallons, for a total capacity of twelve million gallons. The solitary source of this water is rain, collected in three nearby runoff catchment zones and pumped into the tanks.

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When a large enough rain storm occurs, the catchment zones pump runoff water back into these tanks to fill them up. This system, developed for a large military operation, is also completely overkill for the amount of people currently living on the island. As of the date of this publication, these tanks currently hold around five million gallons of water and not a single drop has been pumped back into them in nearly a year and a half.

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While the (grey) water pumped into the three large storage tanks are not potable, some of that water is filtered and purified at the local water treatment plant before it is sent to various homes and offices.

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Another small, nondescript white shipping container contains all of the filtration mechanisms and pumps needed to make potable water. The filtered water is then pumped into and stored in these enormous chemical bags (sacks?) under pressure.

8During off-peak electricity usage hours (typically at night), pumps send gray water from the three large storage tanks up into a water tower.

This water tower generates the pressure needed for the handful of the now unmaintained fire hydrants scattered across the island. These fire hydrants no longer serve a safety purpose: they are primarily used to water native outplantings.

Within the next few months the water tower will be decommissioned and torn down as it poses a safety hazard for both humans and seabirds. The photo shown here may be one of the last photos taken of this structure.

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Not all of the electrical supply comes in the form of diesel. The shipping containers above have actually been converted into cold-storage refrigerators powered by photovoltaic solar panels, and contain food.

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Speaking of food, we also grow a lot here on the island. The estimated cost of sending supplies to Midway is approximately $15 per pound, so growing food on the island can be an immense cost savings. One of the contractors on the island, Hin, is in charge of this hydroponic garden.

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This garden is fairly simple. It is essentially a network of gutters in which slow moving water is continually passed through. Roots sprout through small sponge blocks and the plant grows up through holes drilled into the gutters.

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Virtually all of the water runoff in the garden is recollected and passed back through the system. It is a very efficient process and there are absolutely no herbicides or pesticides used either. The biggest threats are from the Laysan ducks who try to make their way into the garden upon hearing the sound of running water (they are highly attracted to it).

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The produce, when ready, is moved into the kitchen at The Clipper House, our three-times-daily buffet eatery which is the ultimate timekeeper on the island. There are picnic tables outside that overlook the gorgeous turquoise blue waters of North Beach and the atoll.

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An inside look of The Clipper House, the most-often visited building on the entire island.

So maybe by this point you’re asking about where the food goes after we eat it. Well, it goes into a subterranean leach field system which I am completely unable to photograph. Thankfully. If you want to learn about leach fields, Google it.

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Okay, so what about trash? Well, an extremely small percentage of it goes to a composting center which then helps us biological volunteers make nutritious soils for outplanting native grasses, shrubs, and forbs. Most of it, however, gets put into a burn pile. And then it gets burned. Some things are simply left out in an area known as “the boneyard” to be rusted away. The steel scraps above are from recently decommissioned and dismantled fuel tanks. In the background is an old transporter ship used to drop troops straight onto beaches.

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The boneyard is also, unfortunately at this time, where all of the marine debris from beach cleanups is kept. Literally tons of fishing nets and buoys litter this area of the boneyard in vast piles. Determining a cost-effective scenario for dealing with the piles of waste is a challenge, as Hawaii is 1,300 miles away and already has limited recycling capacity. And handling waste most often washed up from other countries simply isn’t in the extremely limited budget.

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It is obvious that the large majority of the refuse found on the beaches of Midway are from fishing vessels. And it’s also fairly unfortunate that the folks (fishermen) who should be the most outspoken about the necessity to preserve marine resources appear to be the biggest violators.

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You can find marine debris anywhere on this small island. On the far northeast is a religious marker. It is a nice, serene location to take in the view. Walk just beyond the trees, however, and you’re greeted with more of the same.

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I’m not sure whether this nylon net captured all of the floating debris or if someone purposefully contained it all and then threw it into the ocean. The albatross chicks would also like to know. And then they would like it promptly removed.

19Our Gulfstream charter jet landed on the island a few days ago for a rare 48-hour stay. It was the first time I’ve been able to see the jet on the island in daylight, as it typically arrives and departs under the cover of night when the birds are the least active.

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It occurred to me that I have failed to take any photos of the building which I work out of on a daily basis. This facility serves are the permanent offices for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife staff and volunteers, and used to be a visitor center when the island was open to the public.

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The occasionally utilized visitor center. Infrequent U.S. Fish & Wildlife meetings are held here along with an occasional scientific presentation.

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The volunteer office, chock-full of field guides and data sheets.

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I wouldn’t be able to complete another blog entry without the required white tern photo, so:

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Questions? Comments? Email me! james (at) jamesweaver.net