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David Scribner
As the selectmen mull taking action against the so-called disposable wipes, the crew at the wastewater treatment plant on Bentley Road has been working overtime to dislodge flushable-wipe clogs. Above, wastewater Superintendent Tim Drumm surveys operations.

Please don’t flush! Town ponders ban on ‘disposable’ wipes

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By Thursday, Mar 15, 2018 News

Great Barrington — Add so-called flushable wipes to the list of household items that could eventually become verboten in Great Barrington if town officials – and voters  –eventually have their way.

Great Barrington Selectboard Chairman Sean Stanton raised that possibility at Monday night’s meeting (March 12) after town manager Jennifer Tabakin suggested a different proposal – a largely unenforceable one that would instead limit items that could be flushed down the toilet to toilet paper and human waste.

“I’m a little bit confused because I thought we had talked about basically a ban on flushable wipes – because there is no such thing [as flushable wipes] – so this is a different approach,” Stanton said when Tabakin suggested a limit only on what items could be flushed. “I mean, there is no possibility of enforcement in this case because, if you ban flushable wipes from grocery stores and everywhere else in Great Barrington, you actually have a way of going in and saying ‘Stop that.’ ”

The Great Barrington Selectboard discusses a possible ban on the sale of ‘flushable’ wipes Monday at Town Hall. Photo courtesy Community Television for the Southern Berkshires

But Tabakin indicated that there are legal issues surrounding a ban on the sale of the wipes within the town, as evidenced by a lawsuit filed against Washington, D.C., when that city tried to regulate the wipes.

At issue is the question of whether the so-called flushable wipes should be flushed at all. Former town wastewater Superintendent Tim Drumm and Department of Public Works chief Sean VanDeusen told the selectboard last summer that it turns out that they’re not so flushable. Click here to view Drumm’s presentation.

The wipes are flushed down toilets but, instead of making their way through the system, they form giant balls of material, blocking the flow of effluent to the sewer plants, causing pumps to fail and costing municipalities millions of dollars a year in some cases.

Intern Ted Nappo and wastewater superintendent Tim Drumm explain the problem to the Great Barrington Selectboard in June 2017. Photo: Terry Cowgill

In Great Barrington, Drumm estimated it’s costing $150,000 annually and is rising at 30 percent per year. Reliable estimates put the cost of fixing the wipe clogs nationwide at $1 billion per year. Between 2010 and 2015, the city of New York had to spend $18 million to address equipment problems associated with the wipes.

One mishap that occurred in Europe brought attention to the issue after an 11-ton mass of wipes, congealed fat and other household waste broke a major sewer pipe in London, England, in 2015. That one clog, known as a “fatberg,” set the city back more than $600,000.

Despite claims by manufacturers that the wipes are not responsible for these problems, public officials remain unconvinced. Officials in Anne Arundel County, Maryland, blame wipes on a 35 percent jump in broken pumps and clogged sewer lines over several years. Others, such as the city of Wyoming, Minnesota, are suing wet-wipe manufacturers. Still others are launching class-action suits. The town of Great Barrington is still mulling the possibility of joining such a suit.

One mass-tort law firm, Morgan & Morgan, is investigating potential lawsuits on behalf of consumers who have used the wipes and suffered from plumbing problems as a result.

A collection of ‘flushable’ wipes pulled out of the Great Barrington sewer system. Photo: Tim Drumm

“So maybe we need to know about the kinds of things they were sued for in Washington, D.C., and if the regulation has held up despite the lawsuits,” Stanton suggested.

When the District of Columbia city council passed a law last year mandating that companies that label their wipes as “flushable” must prove that they live up to the promise of that label, Kimberly-Clark, a major manufacturer of the product, filed a lawsuit against the city.

The D.C. law prohibited wipes sold in the city from being labeled “flushable” unless they disintegrate “in a short period of time after flushing in the low-force conditions of a sewer system.” Wipes that don’t meet the standard must be “clearly and conspicuously” labeled as “should not be flushed.”

See video below of Kimberly-Clark Deputy General Counsel Kyle Kappes commenting on his company’s lawsuit against the District of Columbia:

Late last year, a federal judge issued a temporary injunction against the D.C. law as it applies to Kimberly-Clark after ruling that the new regulation likely “treads impermissibly” on the company’s First Amendment rights.

In light of legal challenges, Tabakin thought her draft bylaw restricting flushable items to toilet paper and human waste would limit the town’s exposure to litigation. But Stanton suggested it would be more symbolic than anything else.

Great Barrington town manager Jennifer Tabakin. Photo: David Scribner

“I mean … that bylaw, I wouldn’t bother putting it on the warrant because we’re not going into anybody’s house to make sure they’re not flushing anything other than toilet paper,” Stanton said.

Stanton also observed that unenforceable regulations such as the one explained by Tabakin would be “clogging up our bylaws” – a double entendre that drew chuckles from the peanut gallery.

Selectman Dan Bailly said, if they wanted to, town residents could vote to ban the sale of the wipes at stores within the town’s borders, as they did in the case of plastic bags.

Five years ago, Great Barrington joined what eventually became dozens of other communities across the state in banning the use of thin-film shopping bags with handles that so many supermarkets and drug stores use to collect purchased goods for consumers to take home.

And a group of environmental activists have successfully petitioned to put on the ballot at the annual town meeting in May a proposal to ban the sale in Great Barrington of drinking water in small, single-use plastic containers.

Great Barrington Selectman Ed Abrahams. Photo: David Scribner

Of Tabakin’s proposal to restrict what can be flushed, Selectman Ed Abrahams said: “I don’t see a downside in taking another opportunity to publicly make some noise about this, which this would do. Possibly we will be ridiculed by people saying we’re passing laws we can’t enforce. But even by just having this conversation, it gets it in the papers again.”

Stanton, who said he would still like to see an outright ban of the sale of the wipes on the warrant for the annual town meeting, asked Tabakin to look further into the matter, including the legal case in Washington and its implications for municipalities.

“It’s definitely worth discussing more and I can bring information on the law in D.C. and then we can consider it, so I think it sounds like a really good way to go,” Tabakin said. “I just want to make sure that we’re not going to replicate any problems that they had. But maybe there is a way to improve upon it.”

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