A spike in the use of moist wipes has become one of the unexpected and messier consequences of the coronavirus outbreak.
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PROVIDENCE — They wrap around equipment in wastewater treatment plants and form dense masses that block up pump stations. They lodge in collection pipes, soaking up grease and mixing with solids to form stubborn “fatbergs” that cause sewage backups and overflows.
A spike in the use of moist wipes has become one of the unexpected and messier consequences of the coronavirus outbreak. Treatment plants were never designed to handle wipes, even those described as flushable, which — despite what their labels may suggest — in most cases do not disintegrate in water like toilet paper.
“These wipes say they’re flushable, but then so is a toy,” said Scott Goodinson, wastewater superintendent in Narragansett. “You can flush a stapler down the toilet if you want to. Anything can be flushed, but that doesn’t mean it’ll break down.”
In Narragansett last week, an influx of wipes got tangled in a pump station at Congdon Street that sends wastewater to the town’s treatment plant near Scarborough State Beach. The wipes twisted into a rope that was strong enough to break an impeller shaft inside a pump, causing $7,300 in damage. The shaft was nearing the end of its design life, but the wipes “definitely contributed to its failure,” said Goodinson.
Burrillville, South Kingstown, East Providence, Warwick, Newport and Cranston have all reported similar clogs in recent days that crews were fortunately able to clear before they caused any damage.
But in Woonsocket on Sunday, a nightmare scenario materialized when a clump of wipes blocked up a 15-inch pipe and sent sewage back into the basements of four homes in the Diamond Hill neighborhood. The dirty water was ankle-deep in one of them.
It took two septic haulers and a five-man crew with Veolia Water, which operates the city’s collection system, 14 hours to clear the blockage using a vacuum truck and clean up the worst of the mess. All told, the cost of the disaster could reach $20,000, according to Veolia.
If more blockages follow, they could divert untreated sewage into stormwater drains that empty into the Blackstone River, which in turn flows into Narragansett Bay.
“It could be catastrophic,” said Paul Rodman, special projects manager with Veolia.
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Throughout the nation, wastewater treatment plants are experiencing the same problem with wipes as people step up efforts to clean their homes and look to alternatives in the face of shortages of toilet paper. But all those wipes, which may contain plastic or synthetic fibers, should be disposed of only in garbage cans, not toilets. Clogs have occurred from California to Minnesota to Connecticut.
The confusion over wipes has persisted for years with consumer-goods companies that make the products and say that many are safe to be flushed locked in a dispute with treatment operators who argue that they’re a public nuisance. It has resulted in lawsuits, such as the class-action case that Proctor & Gamble settled over wipes the company had labeled flushable that caused problems to plumbing and septic systems. In another case, Kimberly-Clark, which also makes wipes, was sued for false advertising.
But as these and other suits play out in the courts, blockages are continuing to happen. They include an 820-foot long fatberg found in Liverpool, England last year and one discovered under Baltimore in 2017 that caused an overflow of 1.2 million gallons of sewage. The costs of clearing these obstructions are real. Treatment plants spend tens of millions of dollars a year cleaning out their systems.
The only real solution to the problem is to stop people from flushing wipes down the toilet, said Bill Patenaude, of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management. So the DEM sent out two news releases in a matter of days warning people about the damage wipes can do to wastewater systems. If those systems fail, the impact of untreated bacteria-tainted water on homeowners and the environment can be devastating.
“Usually it’s an annoyance,” said Patenaude, a principal engineer with the DEM’s Office of Water Resources. “But at its worst, it’s expensive and dangerous.”
He drew a comparison between the current difficulties faced by treatment plants and the historic floods in 2010, which inundated plants in Warwick and West Warwick and sent sewage flowing into the Pawtuxet River. The 10-year anniversary of the floods is less than a week away.
But this couldn’t possibly be as bad, he was asked.
“It’s getting to be,” he said.
Goodinson also said that the scale of the problem is unprecedented.
“In my 30 years in the business, it’s always been a problem, but this is the worst I’ve ever seen it,” he said.
The Narragansett Bay Commission, which operates the largest treatment system in Rhode Island, hasn’t experienced any serious complications with its pump stations or two treatment plants, in Providence and East Providence, but the agency is doing as much as it can to educate its customers. The company’s Instagram and Facebook feeds prominently feature instructions on what can be safely flushed — toilet paper — and what can’t — disinfecting wipes, hand-sanitizing wipes, baby wipes and so-called flushable wipes.
Jamie Samons, public affairs manager with the commission, urged people to remember the “three Ps” when it comes to what can be flushed: pee, poo and (toilet) paper.
She described an experiment that people can do to show the difference between toilet paper and wipes. Put a wipe in one jar of water and toilet paper in another and then shake them up. The toilet paper will break up and the wipe will stay intact, in some cases for several days.
“If the wipes make it to the sewers, they can combine with grease and create blockages (the dreaded fatbergs), but they are much more likely to wreak havoc with one’s in-house plumbing, causing toilet back-ups … which is the last thing any of us need right now,” she said in an email.
Treatment plants have collection screens that are designed to filter out wipes and debris, but they don’t catch everything. And at times like this, when more wipes are getting into the system, it means more hours to clear the screens more frequently. Some plants have machines (known as “muffin monsters”) to collect debris, but in others the work is done with rakes by hand.
Rodman, who works in Woonsocket and responded to the backup there over the weekend, had some simple advice for people:
“Don’t use the toilet as a trash can.”
On Twitter: @KuffnerAlex