Wet wipes an ongoing strain for sewer system

Thu, 12/20/2018 - 6:15pm
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The headline in The Atlantic magazine on Oct. 14, 2016 could not be more succinct: “Wet wipes may be wrecking the world’s sewers.”

That may account for the look of dismay on Block Island Sewer Company Superintendent Chris Blane’s face everytime he brings the subject up.

It was no different at the monthly meeting of the Water and Sewer Commissions on Monday, Dec. 17, when Blane asked the commissioners if they would consider banning the popular items from use on the island.

The issue is problematic, in that banning their use, or even sale, does not necessarily prohibit their presence on the island, as has been shown by the banning of single-use plastic bags and balloons. Many of these items come from the mainland.

“These wipes are the bane of every sewer operation in existence,” said Blane. “If we added up the number of hours the troops spend removing these things from the pumps… I don’t know what the solution is.”

The Atlantic article described the situation in Wyoming, Minnesota, which was the first American city to file a class action suit against the wet wipes industry:

“Dave Torma, a public-works employee in Wyoming, says that the problem picked up in the early 2000s and has gotten worse over the years. After wet wipes are flushed, they exit a house through a lateral pipe that connects to a public sewer system, where sewage pumps ensure that the wastewater flows in the correct direction. But unlike toilet paper, wet wipes fail to disintegrate. They clog the pumps, causing them to break down and redirect stagnant wastewater back toward houses. Sewer systems must be shut down so that the wipes can be manually removed.”

Blane said that during the winter his crew checks the pump at Ocean Avenue every day. Wipes the crews find must be coming from homes in the area because there are no businesses open on West Side Road or at that end of Ocean Avenue at this time of year, said Blane.

Brad Marthens, who was acting as Sewer Department Chair in the absence of Pete McNerney, said the fact that the wipes were being used in private homes made it all the more difficult to propose a ban of their sale or use on the island because it would be impossible to monitor their use or where they were purchased.

“We know where they’re coming from,” said Blane.

“But you don’t know,” said Marthens.

Commission member Steve Draper agreed with Blane that the wipes being found in the system must be coming from residences “because there is absolutely no business over there” in the winter months.

There was some discussion about implementing a surcharge for sewer customers that would perhaps discourage their use, but the members of the commission in attendance said that creating awareness of the problems caused by the use of wet wipes might be the most effective program to reduce their use.

Blane suggested that at the very least the use of biodegradable wet wipes should be encouraged, but according to the literature out there, the definition of what is biodegradable, or flushable, is also debated.

In the meantime, sewer systems across the globe are trying to deal with this issue.

Rob Villee, the executive director of the Plainfield Area Regional Sewerage Authority in New Jersey, is quoted in The Atlantic article saying that “estimates (show) that wet wipes are costing billions of dollars a year in worldwide maintenance. ‘This is an international problem,’ he says. ‘This isn’t the United States, this isn’t Canada. It’s England. It’s Spain. It’s Australia. It’s Israel, France.’”