'Flushable' wipes a persistent - and costly - menace to Berkshire sewer pumps
GREAT BARRINGTON — For years, Sean Van Deusen has been fighting the same battle against a common enemy: flushable wipes.
Van Deusen, Great Barrington's director of the Department of Public Works, has pleaded with residents to avoid flushing the wipes, which can cause clots that wreak havoc with sewer systems.
Yet, he says, workers have seen "not even a slight downturn" in the practice.
It's an expensive problem communities are facing across the county, and beyond. The disposable wipes tend to tangle in sewer pumps and potentially destroy them. And with the outbreak of COVID-19, the use of disinfectant wipes has increased amid hypervigilance against the spread of the virus.
"It got worse with the pandemic," said Bob Rumbolt, superintendent of the Adams Wastewater Treatment Plant. "But, we're now back to normalcy."
And normalcy isn't good, he added.
In Great Barrington, the latest trouble is at the Avery Lane pumping station, the last stop for sewage before it travels to the treatment plant on Bentley Avenue.
"It's a nasty thing," said plant chief Bill Ingram. "Wipes will build up, and it's like a blanket that forms with grease. The wipes get entrained with the pump."
A $1 million screen installed in 2016 keeps wipes and other debris from entering the plant before they are chopped to bits by a macerator known as the "monster."
But, that does nothing to prevent damage at the pump stations.
Ingram said he is looking at estimates of about $4,000 to fix the problem at the Avery Lane station. Recently, the town got off easier, with a $500 bill to clear wipes from the pump station on South Main Street. Ingram also had to get help from a private septic hauler.
Workers have learned to proactively monitor and clear pumps before they break.
But, all the overtime work and mechanical breakdowns are costing taxpayers about $143,000 per year, Van Deusen said.
A $4 million replacement of four stations now budgeted is due partly to the wipe clogs, he said. And that's on top of a state-mandated $20 million upgrade to the treatment plant in the next three years to keep a pollutant from flowing into the Housatonic River.
The buildup also increases worker exposure to the varied hazards of sewer chambers, where gas can accumulate and cause unconsciousness. Workers must carry a gas detector and are attached to a retrieval crane operated by someone who stays above the narrow entry.
Sewer chiefs say they bemoan the "flushable" label.
"They're really not [flushable]," Rumbolt said, noting that his workers have a regular routine of dealing with what are called "rags" — anything that doesn't decompose causes blockages.
The problem also has sparked lawsuits against the wipes' manufacturers. Great Barrington in 2017 considered joining a class-action suit against manufacturers, but gave up amid legal hurdles. Municipalities have tried to get companies to pay for damage, that, in the U.S., costs utilities about $1 billion every year, according to the National Association of Clean Water Agencies.
Carl Shaw, superintendent of Pittsfield's Wastewater Treatment Plant Division, says the wipes problem is "huge," but it's not the only thing that people shouldn't flush.
He said his workers also find things like kids' toys, and hospital catheters.
"We go in pretty gingerly, because we don't know if we're going to find needles," he said. "You'd be amazed what people flush."
Over his 24 years there, he has seen the problem worsen since the advent of flushable wipes.
Ingram said the town bought the $1 million filter because residents keep flushing them.
"After we begged and pleaded [residents to stop flushing wipes]," he said. "So, we had to spend the money.
"People's behavior doesn't change."
Heather Bellow can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.