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Day: May 11, 2010

Stranded half a world away, local woman gets kids out of the dumps

Malia Witham (left) with teens from Korah, Ethiopia. Some are being sent to boarding school via donations from missionaries.

By JASON COX
Of the Keizertimes

An 11-day mission trip ended up being a three-week odyssey for a Keizerite and her group.

Malia Witham of Keizer was on a mission trip to Ethiopia and Uganda, with a group called Visiting Orphans. The group sends small groups of missionaries around the world to help orphaned children via reunification with family, sponsoring them or simply playing games with them, maintaining human connection.

In Witham’s case, they were searching for children who are scrapping for survival in an Ethiopian garbage dump and sending them to boarding school. Witham and Cherrie Cornish were supposed to be on the trip for 11 days.

But the eruption of Eyjafjallajokull, an Icelandic volcano, changed all of that.

Ash from the volcano’s eruption shut down air traffic across much of Europe, which meant their connecting flight from Amsterdam got cancelled. The ordeal extended their trip by about 10 days.

Malia and husband Shane are no strangers to mission work, having volunteered both in the United States and abroad. She found out about Visiting Orphans through a blog detailing a missionary’s feeding program and adoption of 14 Ugandan children.

“For the last three years probably, I have wanted to go to Uganda,” Malia said. “I didn’t know Ethiopia would be the one that would steal our hearts the most.”

She and Salem resident Cherrie Cornish joined the group of about 14 for the trip. They were initially only to spend two days in Ethiopia, part of it in the Korah garbage dump.

Malia said the dump gets all the garbage from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital and largest city, with a population of more than 3.3 million.

Korah is outside of the city, and is the site of a leper hospital built about 75 years ago. People from Korah are often outcasted, finding food in the dump and often literally living in it. “Korah actually means cursed,” Malia said. “From the beginning it was created to be a place where people who were unwanted would go. Most people who live there … get their food and livelihood from the dump.”

Walking through it was “like hiking a mountain of garbage,” and the oil missionaries would put under their noses only made the garbage smell slightly more bearable.

That’s nothing compared to what the children had to do to survive there. Children chase the bulldozers that turn over “fresh” garbage that may have something for them to eat, sell or wear.

“We met one child, in all of the time there, that had two parents,” Malia said. “I look through all the forms … and so many say, ‘Mother has HIV. Mother has leprosy.’”

When it rains on the mud or tarp-walled houses, the children sleep on the floor – regardless of how wet it is.

While they were there, Malia, Cornish and the other missionaries took children out to lunch, played with them, and even taught some English. They held classes for about a week, and maybe 30 people showed up for the first one.

“Three days later we probably had 100 kids,” Malia said.

After seeing their plight, all 14 on the trip made a pledge to sponsor at least one child through boarding school. For about $700 a year, Malia said, the child can be sent to boarding school, have clean uniforms and get four hot meals a day.

“You couldn’t look in their faces and not get them out of there,” Malia said. “The goal is for them to never go back to the dump.”

If nothing else the American dream is that of upward mobility; that we can make something of ourselves if we’re just willing to try. But without help, Malia said these kids won’t ever make it out.

“I think if you are born in Korah, it’s rare to leave,” Malia said. “Your life is always going to be going to the dump and getting food. There’s no way out unless, really, people with money like us come in and provide a way.”

Shane Witham is proud as he can be of his wife’s work. That said – with three children at home – he was ready to have his wife by his side again.

“Twenty-one days is a long time for my kids to be without their mom,” Shane said.

Stormwater franchise fee proposed

By JASON COX
Of the Keizertimes

Federal and state mandates leave no choice but a stormwater fee increase, city officials said last week.
The City of Keizer’s public works department leaders will make a push for a stormwater fee increase that will add about $2.25 every other month to residential water bills.

It has nothing to do with the general fund shortfall that has top city staff scrambling to fill. In fact, the roughly $5.40 bimonthly fee paid by water users in Keizer mostly goes into its own specially designated fund, although a portion does make its way into the general fund.

But Elizabeth Sagmiller, environmental program coordinator for the City of Keizer, said the city faces three mandates, yet only has funding for one. (See sidebar for an explanation of what these mandates are).

“(The Department of Environmental Quality) expects us to do what is in our plan, not what we have budgeted for,” Sagmiller said.

They say fines for non-compliance

with each could go as high as $25,000 per day.

She, along with Public Works Director Rob Kissler, will make their case in front of the Budget Committee this month. The city has known about the Water Pollution Control Facilities (WPCF) permit need since September 2008. However, officials there anticipated the state wouldn’t fund the program as soon as it has.

“The department as a whole wanted to avoid fee increases as long as possible,” Sagmiller wrote in a white paper explaining what permits were needed and advocating for the new fees.

Sagmiller is the only full-time permanent employee dedicated solely to stormwater program management. Other temporary employees have helped with specific projects, like mapping the city’s catch basins. The department will propose adding two full-time employees in the coming budget cycle.

“They will be working in the field, directly with customers on issues; any kind of erosion control; working with outside staff on potential hazards or accidental discharges” like sewer overflow, Kissler said.

The goal is to be “very near” compliance in all three mandated aspects of stormwater runoff by October 2011, Kissler said.

“These are mandated programs,” Sagmiller added. “We don’t have a choice, but it’s the right thing to do. In protecting water quality we’re protecting the community.”

Environmental manager says two new programs mandated by feds, state

The City of Keizer is mandated by state and federal law to manage its stormwater runoff. This is water that falls from the sky, i.e. rain and snow, and must be dealt with. City officials are tasked with making sure pollutants from the air, ground and street entering local waterways like the Willamette River or Claggett Creek are minimized. These can be anything from leaked oil flowing into stormdrains or loose sediment getting into a creek.

The city currently has a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination Permit (NPDES), which allows it to discharge stormwater directly into local waterways. This is reflected in the stormwater fee on residents’ water bills.

It must meet two more mandates to fully comply with the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act:

• Total Maximum Daily Load Implementation Plan – The state developed a plan that shows how much pollution can enter the Willamette River before bacteria levels, water temperature and mercury contamination render it unsuitable for ideal fish spawning or human use, like swimming. Each government that contributes to the pollution – Keizer is one – must have a plan to reduce its contributions.

The city’s plan has been approved, but funding to comply with the plan was not included in the previously-passed stormwater fee.

• UIC Program/Water Pollution Control Facilities Permit – Many cities and counties in Oregon, for various reasons, are not fully served by an interconnected stormwater disposal system. In many of these areas, UIC (Underground Injection Control) devices take runoff off the surface and send it directly underground. Essentially, it disposes of stormwater on or near where it fell to the ground, as opposed to sending it to a nearby waterway via a stormdrain system.

The City of Keizer has approximately 83 of these. Federal and state requirements mandate that the city manage these, including a spill response plan and closing high-risk UICs.

This method of removing stormwater from the surface became popular as development stretched beyond the bounds of connected stormwater systems. Environmental Program Coordinator Elizabeth Sagmiller said that, because Keizer’s water comes from an underground aquifer, correctly-performed stormwater management using UICs can be beneficial. And because of the aquifer, it must be done correctly in order to both comply with environmental regulations and preserve safe drinking water.

UICs are “a very beneficial way to treat stormwater if they’re managed properly because instead of all about stormwater running out to the creek,” Sagmiller said. “It actually helps recharge our aquifer.”

Sagmiller plans to present the matter to the Budget Committee later this month (see related story).