Great Barrington declares war on flushable wipes, may join class action suit
GREAT BARRINGTON — Two men with a gas detector climb down a narrow cylinder to the wastewater pumps, while one waits above in case something goes wrong.
They have to wear gloves and safety glasses — even a sanitation suit at times. And there's a retrieval crane with a hook at the top so the fire department can pull them up the 16-foot deep tube in an emergency.
After about 15 minutes, they pop back up into the pumping station on Park Street, just past the Rising Paper mill, with a small bucket of congealed wet wipes.
Welcome to the world of the town's wastewater department workers, who would normally check the town's four pumping stations once a week to make sure they are pushing wastewater through the system.
But now, workers are going into this dangerous pump chamber — known as "the can" — three times a week because one thing that gets flushed down the toilet is threatening the entire system.
"Every one of those [flushable] wipes weave like dreadlocks and those dreadlocks weave together," said Wastewater Superintendent Timothy Drumm. "And it keeps growing."
Drumm is wearily shaking his head at those convenient things for baby bottoms and kitchen counters. It turns out that only 40 percent of wipes are used on babies, and that their popularity is the scourge of sewers and private septic systems everywhere.
He points to the electrical system control panel in the pumping station. It shows the amps in the pumps rising, indicating wipe trouble downstairs.
"If it's got 20 amps we know it's free [of wipes], but when it starts climbing up, it's ragging up, so now we know we've got to go down there," Drumm said. "When both [pumps] are over 30 amps, it kicks the breakers out."
The wipes will flush down a toilet and even sail through pipes, he said. But at some point they will get hung up somewhere in the system, or eventually meet up at the pump, where they attach and form a "blob," Drumm added.
And it is at the end of this journey that they threaten to break a pump — and taxpayer wallets in this town with a population of roughly 7,000 most of the year.
But taxpayers are already paying. It costs the town $143,000 annually for this weekly manpower to remove what amounts to one small bucket of congealed wipes and take them to the dump.
"It wraps around the pipes so tight, it slows the turning [of the pump]," Drumm said.
So workers go to the stations and check the amps to see if the pumps are struggling. Each station helps push the wastewater through the 31-mile system, Drumm said, eventually sending it downtown and across the Housatonic River, until it gets to the treatment plant on Bentley Avenue.
To get the wipes out of a pump's moving parts, workers have to pull them through a four-inch opening. Sometimes they'll have to put a hook or a hacksaw blade inside to cut the wipes so they can free the pump.
"That's the only access point," Drumm said. "Sometimes they wrap so much we have to cut them."
Widespread and expensive
It's the same everywhere, with a shift in scale, of course. New York City's acting commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection told ABC News in 2014 that $18 million was spent over a five- to six-year period to hand-remove masses of wipes from the sewer system.
In the city of Pittsfield, population 44,000, Wastewater Superintendent Carl Shaw said the department has new equipment that drops things like wipes onto a conveyor belt, which sends the matter into a "screening monster that grinds it up and compresses it."
"The biggest problem with wipes is in the [pumping] stations," he added. "Occasionally we'll have to pull a pump out. If one pump fails we have others. But we designed our stations to chop [the wipes]."
Shaw said wipes are an issue only "once a quarter," however, and said because of larger siphons leading into the system that people will sometimes throw things into, they find bigger things, like underwear or even blankets.
In 2014 The Eagle reported that lots of things, including wipes, were overworking Pittsfield's wastewater department.
"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 Bruce Collingwood, who at the time was the Commissioner of Public Utilities.
In Great Barrington, it's removing wipes that ups the workload, but it has to be done, Drumm said.
"If we don't do this," he added, "it'll either trip the pump out or shear the pump's coupling, or have a catastrophic failure of the pump. Then we're down there pulling the whole pump out."
It happens. In 2015, wet wipes and household food fat formed a giant clot that destroyed a Chelsea, west London sewer.
"The city of London had a 10-ton blob of wipes," said Ted Nappo, a Great Barrington town intern who researched the problem for a presentation to the Select Board on Monday.
"It cost the city taxpayers $750,000 [in U.S. dollars]."
One new pump system in one of Great Barrington's four stations is estimated at $700,000. That's $2.8 million total, Nappo said, if all the pumps need replacement.
"None of these numbers are necessary if people stop flushing the wipes," he added.
But these numbers have pulled lawyers into the fray, as municipalities and private citizens are fighting back with class-action lawsuits against wipe manufacturers like Proctor & Gamble, and the internet is chock-full of tales of sewer and septic woe.
Great Barrington Town Manager Jennifer Tabakin said Monday the town might look into joining such a lawsuit.
"I've been here almost 35 years, and it's gotten worse in the last 12 years," Drumm told the board. "They've got a whole aisle at Price Chopper with them."
Board Chairman Sean Stanton suggested a ban like the one imposed on plastic bags in town stores. He also said state legislators should be consulted.
"If we don't get in front of this the [state] Department of Environmental Protection is going to mandate that we get more staff," said town Department of Public Works Director Sean VanDeusen, who said that will pile on insurance and other costs of hiring people. "That adds up to well over $100,000."
Nappo said education is key, since you can't police people in their bathrooms. And, he said, despite the problem, manufacturers still advertise wipes as "flushable."
"As anyone with children knows, lots of things are flushable," Stanton joked.
But wipe manufacturers are held to a "flushable" standard set by the industry trade organization INDA, the Association of the Nonwoven Fabric Industry, and EDANA, it's European counterpart. INDA, for instance, has a set of tests to determine "flushability" that it encourages the industry to abide by.
The INDA website has multiple pages on "Flushabilty" and the sewer controversy, where it says paper towels are the biggest culprit of sewer clogs.
"Some wipes are designed to be flushed," the website says, "while others are not. For those companies who make "flushable wipes," we urge them to adopt our Flushability Guidelines and test their products in order to substantiate flushable claims."
INDA says it encourages companies to label nonflushable wipes packages with the INDA "Do Not Flush" logo.
Drumm said something is wrong with this picture — that his workers don't have a regular detail on anything other than wipes.
"It's the main thing," he said, of the extra maintenance work. "When we go to a [wastewater] conference, people ask, `You got a problem with the wipes?'" Drumm says everyone throws up their hands and says "yes!"
At the pumping station, wastewater department employee Jerry Morey brings the bucket of wipes up and takes them out to the truck for the trip to the dump.
And Drumm, watching him, said they especially stay on top of the wipe situation on Fridays.
"We always try to do it on Friday," he said, "'cause we don't want to get called in on the weekends."
Reach staff writer Heather Bellow at 413-329-6871
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