Wipes wreak havoc on Montgomery Co. sewer lines

ROCKVILLE, Md. (WJLA) - Sanitary cloths, feminine care wipes, paper towels and baby wipes flushed down the toilet are wreaking havoc on sewer lines, and now the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission is stepping-in.

On March 1, 15,810 gallons of raw sewage oozed out of a manhole near 6120 Executive Boulevard in Rockville. WSSC crews dispatched to the scene quickly determined a clump of "disposable" wipes led to pipe blockage, and the subsequent spill. Much of the untreated water, pouring out at 50 gallons per minute, sloshed into a tiny creek that feeds into the Cabin John watershed.

"It's a huge problem," WSSC spokeswoman Lyn Riggins said. "Your toilet is not a trash can."

WSSC, which oversees 5400 miles of sewer lines across Montgomery and Prince George's Counties, says the increasing popularity of wipes has plagued day-to-day operations. Pipes and pumps often become clogged, and in some cases spills occur, putting the environment at risk.

At the water company's Capitol Heights pumping station, a mechanical lift is used to pluck wipes from wet wells before they become lodged in the station's high-pressure pumps.

"It keeps us busy all day long," waster water operator Steve Thomas said. "These [machines] are going 24/7, seven days a week, 365 days a year."

Once pried from the wet wells, the wipes are dropped onto a hydraulic conveyor belt, which runs to an oversized dumpster, emptied twice a week. The average pick-up weighs two tons.

"Who knows how far they've traveled to get here, and they're still intact," Riggins added. "The message is really simple, the three p's are the only things you should flush: pee, poop and paper, and that's toilet paper."

Problem is, many national manufacturers market their wipes as "safe", "disposable," and "flushable" items. Why such blatant false advertising? Market research has shown American consumers are more likely to purchase wipes that are bio-degradable for cleanliness reasons.

"This is not flush-able," Riggins said while clasping onto a soaking wet wipe. "This is probably a good couple of miles that it's traveled and this wipe is still fully intact."

Over the last year, WSSC has spent $1.4 million installing industrial-sized garbage disposals, called grinders, at 17 of its 49 pumping stations. The devices shred the wipes, but come with a hefty upfront cost.

"It's expensive for us to install this equipment, and ultimately our ratepayers have to pay for it," Riggins added.

The National Association of Clean Water Agencies, which works alongside more than 300 water companies including WSSC, says better wipe regulation is a must.

"These products are sometimes disposed of in toilets because of how and where they are used, causing significant economic burdens on local wastewater treatment systems," NACWA Director of Regulatory Affairs, Cynthia Finley said.

To date, California, Maine and New Jersey have attempted passing legislation to better regulate wipe advertising and disposal. However, all have failed. According to NACWA, Maine recently launched a $100,000 television and newspaper public service campaign to better educate residents about the perils of flushing wipes down the toilet. It's impact has yet to be assessed.

"I know what a nightmare it is for us, and I know it's expensive for us. Keep the wipes out of the pipes, they belong in the trash can. It's that plain and simple," Riggins concluded.

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