Don’t flush that: Blocked sewers prove costly for cities and towns


Don’t flush that Swiffer.

Nonflushable items such as the popular disposable dust- or wet-mop pads are lodging in sewer systems throughout the Berkshires -- costing municipalities thousands of dollars and considerable man-hours, The Eagle has learned.

"It’s a daily issue, no doubt about it, and quite often overtime is required because you get blockages in the system all hours of the day," said Pittsfield Commissioner of Public Utilities Bruce Collingwood.

A tedious and nasty job for municipal employees ultimately results in, if not blockages, sewer backups and damage to pumping stations.

The city in fiscal 2014 allocated $35,000 to combat the problem, but it was expected to exceed that budget by $5,000 to $10,000, Collingwood said.

And it’s not just Swiffers. Increasingly, municipal sewer customers have been flushing baby wipes, floor wipes, rags, diapers and other similar items down the toilet.

Roughly three tons of such debris gets removed from the city’s sewer system per week. The method usually involves lifting manhole covers to find standing water downstream of blockages. Then, high-pressure water jets are used to break the blockage.

In extreme cases, digging becomes necessary.

Great Barrington devotes 24 man-hours per week declogging the town’s six pumping stations, equivalent to 31 weeks of the year for one full-time employee.

"It can be a huge deal if you don’t respond to these nagging problems in a timely manner," said William Ingram, chief operator of the town’s wastewater treatment plant.

Great Barrington DPW Superintendent Joe Sokul described a typical scene when responding to a pumping station clog.

"We find disposable diapers with the elastic wound so tight around the impeller it has to be cut off with a saw," Sokul said in an email. "Sanitary wipes and cleaning rags are wound to the degree [that they] look like the inside of a baseball.

"I have been in the position of superintendent of wastewater facilities for 30-plus years and [have] never had the issue of rags [like] I do now."

In Adams, clogging at the pumps doesn’t happen often, but only because the town’s wastewater plant employees have been conditioned to check for nonflushable debris on a daily basis.

"Before this material came on the market, we didn’t have to do that," said Joseph Fijal, superintendent of Adams’ wastewater treatment plant. "The new microfiber just doesn’t want to break down like the paper-based stuff."

Jeffrey Reel, a member of the Lenox Environmental Committee, took an interest in the issue after hearing of similar travails in Lenox and Lee. He began calling around and said town after town reported the same story.

"The message is one of ultimate frustration," Reel said. "Without exception as soon as [water department and department of public works employees] heard the questions I was asking it was like they’d laid down on a therapists’ couch and opened up."

Fijal offered a simple solution.

"Don’t use the toilet as a wastebasket," he said.

Reel and others want to spread the message -- not only does flushing these items create problems for others and damage public infrastructure, but the phosphorous they contain can increase levels in the local water supply, which causes rapid algae blooms. These tax ecosystems and harm water quality.

"There is no such thing on this planet as ‘wastewater,’ " Reel said. "Water is a precious and finite resource; it continually gets recycled. When you flush Swiffers and baby wipes down the drain, they clog our sewer systems and leach untold chemicals into our waterways, which recycle back to us."

Cooking grease constitutes another hazard when it congeals in municipal sewer systems after being improperly disposed.

Lee Waste Water Supervisor Alan Zerbato suggested an information-sharing Berkshire County consortium of water treatment operators -- or even just an email chain -- might help organize efforts to mitigate these issues.

Interested municipalities can contact the Lenox Environmental Committee.

To reach Phil Demers:
or (413) 281-2859.
On Twitter: @BE_PhilD

Don’t flush that

Here is a list of items that should never be flushed:

n Baby wipes and diapers

n Rags and towels

n Cotton swabs

n Syringes

n Candy and other food wrappers

n Clothing labels

n Cleaning sponges

n Toys

n Plastic items of any description

n Aquarium gravel or kitty litter

n Rubber items such as latex gloves

n Cigarette butts

n Sanitary napkins

n Hair

n Underwear

n Disposable toilet brushes

Source: Water Environment Foundation (


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