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‘Wipes out’: Nonflushable paper products causing clogging issues

Patrick Varine

Delmont Borough has installed “trash baskets” at its Cramer pump station for primarily one reason — to catch debris such as “flushable” wipes before they can jam up the pumping equipment.

“They’re advertised as ‘flushable,’” Delmont Solicitor Dan Hewitt said. “They’re not.”

The issue isn’t limited to Delmont.

The wipes and their impact on sanitary sewers have been debated among wastewater operators, private citizens and wipe manufacturers. The debate has moved from the court of public opinion to state and federal court systems. Class-action lawsuits have been attempted over hefty plumbing bills due to wipe-related clogs, while manufacturers have argued that consumers do not pay close enough attention to what is labeled “flushable” and what is not.

Regardless of the ultimate legal determination about their flushability, one thing is clear: their presence in local wastewater systems is a serious issue.

“They don’t break down like toilet paper,” said Kevin Kaplan, manager for the Franklin Township Municipal Sanitary Authority, which serves the Murrysville area. “They can cause clogging issues, especially in customers’ lateral (lines). They can get hung up in areas of the sewer, and debris builds up on them, including more wipes.”

Delmont Borough Engineer Kevin Brett — who advises residents not to flush the wipes — said the wipes are still an issue even after the installation of the baskets.

According to the National Association of Clean Water Agencies, the wipes are causing utilities across the country to spend millions of dollars to respond to overflows, clean the products out of their pumps and other equipment, and replace equipment prematurely.

Global retail sales of personal care wipes nearly doubled between 2003 to 2013, from 93 billion units to almost 170 billion, according to industry analysts, who predict the market will grow annually by 3 percent and hit $9.3 billion in sales by 2018.

The degree to which wipes labeled as “flushable” degrade once they enter a sewage system is a hotly contested issue: a New York doctor in early 2014 filed a $5 million federal class-action lawsuit, claiming that consumers throughout the country have had to deal with clogged pipes, flooding and septic-tank issues related to the use of “flushable” wipes. The case still is in the pre-trial phase.

Costco Corporation — one of two manufacturers in the New York class-action suit — did not respond to a request for comment. The other, Kimberly-Clark, stood behind its description of several products as “flushable,” according to its external communications director, Bob Brand.

“Kimberly-Clark has invested significant resources to develop flushable wipes with proprietary, patented SafeFlush Technology that makes them compatible with wastewater systems because they lose strength rapidly and break down, in contrast with non-flushable baby wipes that do not break down in sewer systems and can clog pumps,” Brand wrote in an email. “We have shared our technology and research findings with a number of national wastewater organizations.”

Stan Caroline, manager of the Penn Township Sewage Authority, said wipes are a common problem. Besides the problems caused at pump stations, they also get stuck in digesters at sewage treatment plants.

“Those rags get all balled up and they can’t get through,” said Caroline, whose agency serves Penn Township. “(Workers) have to go in there and take tons of these things out of there.”

Western Westmoreland Municipal Authority has encountered the same problems as it serves Irwin, Manor and neighboring areas. It has a project in the works in North Huntingdon to keep sewage from being released into Brush Creek during heavy rains. The work will feature the installation of special screens at a nearby pumping station to capture debris, including the wipes.

“Part of our sewage-treatment process is to run waste through a grinder that’s supposed to shred whatever comes in. But further down the treatment line, the material used for the wipes starts to ball back up and cause pumps to clog,” said Kevin Fisher, general manager of the Western Westmoreland Municipal Authority.

To combat the problem, WWMA plans to install “bar screens” as part of an upgrade to the pumping station near a new 7-million gallon tank that will be built to hold a mixture of rainwater and sewage until it can be treated and released into Brush Creek, said Stan Gorski Jr., the authority’s assistant manager.

Overflows into Brush Creek, which runs along Route 993 from Trafford through Ardara and North Irwin into Harrison City, occur when storm water seeps into the sanitary sewer system during a heavy storm through cracks in old terra-cotta lines as well as roof downspouts that are illegally connected to sanitary lines, according to Fisher.

According to Dave Rousse, president of the International Nonwovens and Disposables Association trade group, the real problem is consumers flushing wipes that aren’t designed or labeled as flushable.

“Things like baby wipes and hard-surface wipes are not designed, marketed or claimed to be flushable,” Rousse said. “We’re spending a lot of time framing the issue: We all need to stop flushing things that aren’t designed to be flushed.”

Rousse cited a 2010-11 study in Maine, in which wipes labeled “flushable” comprised only 8 percent of the material found on pump-station inlet screens, similar to what Delmont has installed. By contrast, nonflushable baby and household wipes made up 32 percent of the material, and nonflushable paper — such as paper towels, tissues and napkins — made up 47 percent of the material.

“We have to define the problem correctly,” Rousse said. “We believe that consumers will do the right thing, if they know the right thing to do.”

Rousse said his association has developed a code of practice for properly labeling wipes, as well as a seven-point test to ensure a product will break down properly once it has entered the sewage system.

According to engineer Gary Baird, of Lennon Smith Souleret in Greensburg, the best solution is to simply throw wipes into the trash.

“The baskets (Delmont) currently has in place are checked on a daily basis by public works,” Baird said. “This is a temporary solution as the borough looks at alternatives to alleviate the issue. The best way to help is to have residents and commercial property owners throw the rags in the trash, and not flush them into the system.”

Patrick Varine is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Staff writers Tom McGee and Tony LaRussa contributed to this report.


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