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Surprise: ‘Flushable wipes’ not so flushable after all

The cost for a sewer system as small as Great Barrington's is staggering. The annual cost for dealing with so-called "flushable" wipes is estimated to be $150,000 for cleaning and unclogging, with labor alone costing $85,000.

Great Barrington — It’s not exactly the most glamorous of subjects. All that most people know about flushing their toilets is that the contents simply “go away.” For the most part, this is true.

What’s flushed either flows down the street to your municipal wastewater plant to be treated or, if you have a septic system, it leaves your house and goes to the system’s tank and leaching fields where it will eventually be pumped out by a contractor.

But an enormous exception to that rule has emerged: those so-called “flushable wipes” that have proliferated over the years. Turns out they’re not so flushable. 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. In Great Barrington, it’s costing $150,000 annually, and is rising at 30 percent a year.

Intern Ted Nappo and wastewater superintendent Tim Drumm explain the problem to the selectmen Monday night. Photo: Terry Cowgill
Intern Ted Nappo, at left, and wastewater superintendent Tim Drumm explain the problem to the Selectboard Monday night. Photo: Terry Cowgill

“We need to get a handle on this,” said Sean Van Deusen, Great Barrington’s director of public works. “Then it has to be a continuous narrative.”

Ted Nappo, a college intern at Great Barrington Town Hall, researched the subject for a presentation made to the selectmen Monday night (June 12).

“When they get in the sewer system, they make this gross blob,” Nappo said, explaining between PowerPoint slides how workers deal with the balls of material. “People are literally pulling them out with their hands. It’s kind of gross.”

The cost for a sewer system as small as Great Barrington’s is staggering. In order to deal with the problem, an average of three operators spend a total of 24 hours per week unclogging the system. The labor alone costs $85,000 per year, with total cleaning and unclogging costs of more than $150,000 annually.

And if pumps have to be replaced, things can get even pricier. Great Barrington’s system has four pump stations. If they all had to be replaced, the total cost would be $2.8 million and would likely entail borrowing costs that would drive the price up even farther, according to wastewater superintendent Tim Drumm.

“They do make pumps that will flush them down farther into the system, but they can burn the pumps out,” Drumm said, adding that, even then, the wipes just ball up again and cause more problems.

Nappo said the town’s costs associated with the wipes have risen 30 percent per year since 2013.

The town Board of Health could mandate rules for proper disposal of the wipes. The town could also enact a ban on flushing the wipes into the system but enforcement would be almost impossible.

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

“You can’t go into someone’s bathroom and say, ‘Did you just flush that?’ ” Nappo said.

“We might struggle with enforcement but at least people would know that it’s a serious issue,” countered town manager Jennifer Tabakin.

Tabakin said the town could ask its Board of Health for guidance in approaching heavy users of the sewer system, such as Fairview Hospital and Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in an effort to educate those organizations about the hazards of the wipes.

In a follow-up interview, Van Deusen, who was also DPW chief in Lenox before landing the same job in Great Barrington last year, said if things got bad enough, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection could mandate that the town add a couple of staff members to deal with the problem, which could add another $100,000 or more per year to the wastewater budget.

“It’s a waste of time and resources,” said selectboard Chairman Sean Stanton.

Van Deusen said the problem seemed to start in places such as senior centers and childcare centers, where sanitary wipes are in heavy use. But it seems to have spread to virtually every sector.

“The last few years, it’s been getting substantially worse because, I guess, they work,” Van Deusen explained. “Some people are just using this stuff in place of toilet paper.”

Simple diaper wipes did not pose the same kind of problems. Most of them were used to clean babies after a diaper change. The wipes were then thrown into a pail with the diapers and then sent into the solid waste stream.

Wipes like these are causing an expensive nuisance. Town officials say that, regardless of what the package says, they should not be flushed. image courtesy Town of Great Barrington
Wipes like these are causing an expensive nuisance. Town officials say that, regardless of what the package says, they should not be flushed. image courtesy Town of Great Barrington

But it seems that adults who use the wipes on themselves are reluctant to put them in their household garbage because they think it’s unsanitary. And that’s why “flushable wipes” have become so popular.

Reliable statistics on how much it costs to address this issue nationwide are difficult to find. But between 2010 and 2015, the city of New York had to spend $18 million to address equipment problems associated with the wipes.

An 11-ton mass of wipes, congealed fat and other household waste broke a major sewer pipe in London, England, two years ago. That one clog, known as a “fatberg,” set the city back more than $600,000. Officials in Anne Arundel County, Maryland, blame wipes on a 35 percent jump in broken pumps and clogged sewer lines over several years.

Some cities and states are proposing legislation that requires companies to stop labeling their wipes as flushable. Others, such as the city of Wyoming, Minnesota, are suing wet-wipe manufacturers. Still others are launching class-action suits.

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.

For their part, manufacturers like Kimberly Clark and Procter & Gamble argue that the vast majority of the clogs arise from improper disposal of products, such as cheap baby wipes, that are not marketed as disposable.

Smither Apex, a market research company, says the wipes market was valued at $1.4 billion annually in 2015 and doubles every five years.

Tabakin said Great Barrington might have the option of joining a class-action suit but “doing our own lawsuit would be very costly.”

Van Deusen added that the clogs caused by the wipes are not only a public health problem but also a potential public safety concern. The wastewater system must operate 24/7 and, if a clog caused it to malfunction even for a short time, the results could be environmentally damaging.

If there were a prolonged clog that couldn’t be fixed quickly, there could be an equipment failure and the wastewater treatment plant on Bentley Road on the banks of the Housatonic River might have to be shut down, causing what Van Deusen described as a “sanitary overflow.”

“You would end up opening it up and letting it go into the river,” Van Deusen said. “It would be a disaster.”

The town Board of Health is expected to take up the issue of flushable wipes at its next meeting on Thursday, July 6.

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