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Clogging The System: What You Flush Could Cost You

SALT LAKE COUNTY, Utah – Most of us probably never think about what we flush. But the convenience of some popular personal hygiene products may come at an overlooked cost to taxpayers.

When you use a toilet, absolutely everything you flush makes its way through a lot of pipes: From your house, to under the street, and eventually a pump station.

Pump stations are designed to move mass amounts of raw sewage from one location to another.

Gross, right?

Here’s something even more gross: Inside these pump stations, 20 feet below the ground and floating on the watery surface, you will find massive clogs.

Clogs nearly two feet thick.

Clogs you need a pitchfork to break-up, and a vacuum to suck up.

Clogs that could push sewage back into your home.

Clogs costing hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage.

And clogs, sewage professionals say, are partially to blame on something people are flushing every single day: Flushable wipes.

Flushable Wipes

“One of our biggest problems with the wipes is it clogs these pumps,” said Ricky Necaise, director of wastewater systems for the Granger-Hunter Improvement District. “And if these pumps aren’t working, we’ve got hours before we’ve got to get them back up and running.”

Necaise gave the KSL Investigators a tour of a pump station in West Valley City, watching as crews spent hours unclogging the system.

He says the flushable wipes are not as advertised, and claims they don’t break down like toilet paper, and often combine with oils and grease in the sewer.

Eventually, he says they begin to grow and grow and grow into a giant clog.

“A lot of people call them fatbergs,” said Necaise, “because it’s just fats, oils and greases that hold together.”

An underground floating “fatberg” of grease and wipes, Necaise says wreaks havoc throughout their system.

Sometimes blocking the pipes, other times destroying pumps, nd for those making it all the way to the sewer plant, it doesn’t get any better.

Just ask Phil Heck, General Manager of Central Valley Water Reclamation Facility.

“They plug up the process. They don’t bio-degrade in the process,” said Heck.

And when he says “they”, he’s referring to flushable wipes.

Cost to Taxpayers

Not a whole lot of people know the sewer better than Heck. He’s been in the business more than three decades and says the sludge that clogs up their system before treatment is expensive.

He claims flushable wipes play a big role in that expense.

After just six years, the South Valley Sewer District spent $143,000 rebuilding pumps, that were supposed to last 20 years.

The Central Valley Sewer Plant spends $72,000 a year to send wipes and other garbage found in the water to the dump.

“Our experience is they’re not biodegradable,” said Heck. “They don’t disperse in the wastewater.”

Putting It to A Test

The KSL Investigators decided to run a little test to see how well the flushable wipes break down.

Here’s how it worked: We bought multiple brands of flushable wipes. We numbered them. We soaked them in a container full of water. Fourteen days later, the lid came off. We also added toilet paper for comparison. That dissolved on contact. But not a single flushable wipe showed signs of breaking down.

Even when we physically ripped them apart, there were no obvious signs the wipes were in the process of breaking down.

“Flushable wipes are made of the same materials as toilet paper,” said Dave Rousse, president of the Association of the Nonwoven Fabrics Industry, a trade group.

Fully defending flushable wipes, Rousse says the wipes were never designed to break down in a tub of stagnant water. He said they need the agitation, or twists and turns and bumps and grinds, of a sewer system.

“And that agitation,” says Rousse, “the agitation will start to pull those wipes apart.”

Industry Research

Rousse says they have the tests to prove it.

He claims flushable wipes are being unfairly blamed for plugging up the system.

In five of their studies, he says the biggest cloggers were paper towels, feminine hygiene products, and non-flushable baby wipes.

“Fewer than one percent of materials that can be identified on the screen can be identified as flushable wipes,” said Rousse. “Flushable wipes are not the problem. As a matter of fact, if every wipe flushed were a flushable wipe, there would be no problems in pipes caused by wipes.”

That is a bold statement.

And maybe he’s right.

But if you ask the sewer maintenance crew in West Valley City, with pitch forks and a giant vacuum trying to destroy one of many massive clogs, they’re not convinced.

Regulation?

There is no government standard on what flushable actually means, and to make one would probably require legislation.

Three years ago, an international coalition advocated for only toilet paper to be flushed. Since then the sewer industry and the wipe manufacturers have tried to work together but haven’t been able to reach common ground.

The Federal Trade Commission settled a complaint against one manufacturer in 2015, saying it needed to prove its flushable wipes were actually flushable. https://www.ftc.gov/news-events/press-releases/2015/11/ftc-approves-final-order-requiring-wet-wipe-manufacturer

The company pulled the product off the shelves.

A lawsuit is also underway. A federal judge in Minnesota is hearing arguments in a class action lawsuit filed in that state by seven sewer systems against two wipe manufacturers.

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