Sunday, February 17, 2008

Disposable wipes make bigger mess

Thanks to the New England Anomaly for pointing out this doozy of a cleanup problem, as investigated by the Bangor Daily News! I know I use my own fair share of Swiffer-type wipes, but I sure as heck don't flush them down the drain. Hopefully less people will after they hear what is happening as a result -- hello, as though we need another reason for taxes to get raised! I thought Mainers were supposed to be sensible.
Wipes create their own mess
By Walter Griffin
Wednesday, February 13, 2008 - Bangor Daily News

WINTERPORT, Maine — Disposable wipes may appear to be a handy household product, but they are creating a nightmare for operators of the state’s sewage treatment plants.

Thicker than toilet paper, the wipes do not disintegrate when flushed. As their use has become more prevalent, the wipes are clogging treatment plant pumps and costing communities extra money in overtime and equipment repairs.

"This has become a big problem. Instead of people throwing them in the garbage can where they belong, they’re flushing them down the toilet," Winterport Water District superintendent Steve Lane said Tuesday. "The only thing that should be flushed down the toilet is human waste."

The wipes are used for cleaning babies, dusting and soaking up spills. They are more absorbent than paper towels and their use is growing in popularity. Treatment plants have shredding equipment that can handle toilet paper, but the cloth and plastic wipes are so strong that they tend to jam those devices. What was an infrequent nuisance a few years ago is now almost a daily occurrence.

"They don’t degrade like toilet paper. You just can’t shred these wipes," Lane said.

He said the plant’s shredder needs to be replaced, adding it would cost $8,900 to rebuild the existing shredder or $5,900 to install a new one.

Whenever a shredder or pump gets clogged, operators have to take it off line and remove the material. The piles of wipes are then treated with lime and taken to the town dump, he said.

Lane said he has been in contact with plant operators throughout the state and they all have encountered similar problems. He said the Portland Water District had experienced a plague of pump failures, and Saco was considering installing a $1.5 million screening device to capture the wipes before they enter the system and jam its pumps. Where Winterport has a single pumping station, Portland has dozens, Lane said.

"They are just swamped with it. They are starting to put in a lot of overtime to keep the pumps free," he said. "It’s getting to the point where we’re all going to have to get together to do something about it. It’s a huge problem statewide."

Lane said plant operators were talking about sponsoring legislation that would require the manufacturers of the wipes to create a special fund that could be tapped by municipalities that have frequent equipment failures.

"I certainly would be in favor of something like that," he said.

Winterport has 304 users on the municipal sewer system and any added costs are charged to the ratepayers. Lane said it would cost $2,000 to repair a pump that was jammed in December. That same pump was rebuilt three years ago and should have lasted much longer. Generally a pump should last 15 to 20 years, he said.

"The more trouble we have, fixing it will essentially be coming out of the pocketbooks of the ratepayers," Lane said.

Lane said the Winterport plant has two pumps and that if both went down at the same time it either would cause wastewater to back up into homes or overflow the system and dump raw sewage into the Penobscot River.

"We have an obligation to do whatever we have to do to protect that river out there. It’s our job to protect that river," Lane said. "People have to realize that these wipes should not be flushed down the toilet."

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