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Flushable products causing clogs in sewer lines

Tom Templer, lift station mechanic at the Willmar Wastewater Treatment Facility, shows some the items that have been flushed and caught in the plant’s step screen equipment. (Tribune photo by Ron Adams)

WILLMAR -- Certain consumer products such as disinfecting wipes are touted as disposable and even flushable. But those and similar products are causing problems for operators of Willmar's wastewater collection system.

The cloth-like wipes don't dissolve like toilet paper and can block sewer lines and clog lift station pumps. The clogs could result in sewage backup into people's businesses and homes.

The problem impacts not only Willmar's wastewater collection system but collection systems in other cities, sources say.

"What we're finding is that a lot of products whether they're labeled flushable or not are going down into the sewer system and causing these types of problems,'' said Cynthia Finley, director of regulatory affairs for the National Association of Clean Water Agencies. The organization represents Willmar and other wastewater system operators.

Finley thinks consumers are confused about exactly what they can and cannot flush down the toilet. Some wipes, like baby wipes and cleaning wipes, are labeled flushable.

"Some of them might degrade sufficiently,'' said Finley. "But we're finding that others that are labeled flushable do not, and there are wipes that don't have clear labeling one way or another. It might have in tiny, little print on the back that says do not flush. But it's not something that people really notice.''

Jim Gauer, Willmar wastewater working foreman, said many flushable products don't dissolve as well as toilet paper.

"It's our position that the only things that we'd like to see flushed down the toilet are human waste and toilet paper. That's what the toilet is meant for,'' Gauer said.

Willmar's collection system consists of about 100 miles of underground sanitary sewer lines, 16 lift stations in Willmar and nine located around Eagle Lake belonging to the Willmar Wastewater Treatment Facility, as well as the new plant.

The purpose of a lift station is to pump wastewater to a high point so it can flow by gravity to the treatment plant. Gauer said many cities including Willmar are finding flushables clogging lift station pumps.

The pumps, along with the treatment plant, which went online in the fall of 2010, are continuously monitored by a supervisory control and data acquisition system. Sensors notify staff if issues such as clogging arise anywhere in the system. Staff members respond within 30 minutes.

"We know when pumps turn on, when they turn off, how often they run,'' said Gauer. "We had one area of town that had frequent plugging of pumps and we were there two to three times a week cleaning out and unclogging the pumps, either at night, in the middle of the night, during the day just to keep from backing up anybody's sanitary.''

Gauer thinks the city has done a good job at preventing backups even when pumps are plugged.

"We've got pretty good response time. It costs us time and effort, but we're there to try to protect the public from any kind of contact with the sanitary sewer system,'' he said.

Many toilet paper brands are supposed to degrade in eight seconds. Not so with other products. Workers use a big truck-mounted vacuum to remove clogs caused by wipes, dental floss, paper towels and facial tissues in lift station wetwells.

"You take some of these flushable products and they're still whole and they look the same an hour later,'' Gauer said.

Stuff larger than an eighth-inch is first screened out of the wastewater in the headworks building. Much of the debris resembles off-white rags but can include rubber gloves and feminine products. The debris is bagged and taken to the Kandiyohi County Landfill for disposal.

Gauer said flushables are more of a problem in the collection system than at the treatment plant, "although it is an expense to be removing all this stuff because it's got to go to the landfill.''

Gauer thinks there are more flushable products in use today.

"I know that once people start getting used to flushing flushable products, pretty soon there's non-flushable products getting put in there, too,'' he said.

"I think we would like to change the culture to even though it's flushable, if you could get into the habit to not be flushing all those items, it would certainly be beneficial. Sometimes you think out-of-sight, out-of-mind. But it is the culture we'd like to change. Even though they're flushable and there are legal to flush items that are labeled flushable, people get into the habit of putting everything down.''

Finley, from the National Association of Clean Water Agencies, said her group and the Nonwoven Fabrics Association will evaluate whether products are truly flushable or not and will be working on clearer packaging labels.

"We're hoping that's going to help educate people about what they can flush and not flush,'' said Finley.

David Little
David Little covers the Willmar City Council, Willmar Municipal Utilities and other city news.
(320) 235-1150
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