“Wipes” clogging Canal Winchester sewer lines

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By Linda Dillman
Staff Writer

Flushable baby wipes, and other wipes manufactured for adult use, are creating a headache for sanitary sewer systems such as the one in Canal Winchester.

The wipes are used for personal grooming, household cleaning, and various other applications, but the nonwoven cloths—often identified by manufacturers as flushable—are clogging sewer pipes, according to Canal Winchester city officials.

The cloths do not bio-degrade quickly enough to prevent millions of dollars in damage to municipal sewer systems. A 10 ton clog attributed to flushable wipes was recently removed from a west London, England sewer and New York City is spending millions of dollars to address the problem.

According to Canal Winchester Water Superintendent Steve Smith, the London clog was so large, it shut off service to a large section of the city.

On a smaller scale a similar situation is happening closer to home. During a Jan. 16 Canal Winchester City Council work session, Smith shared a picture of one of four 1990-era city of Canal Winchester sewer valves replaced in December that contained a sludge-like material attributed to flushable wipes.

“With over 25 years of service, it is not entirely unusual to have to replace such a valve after that term of service.

What we did not expect to find however, was the degree of impact the rag material had on the operation of the valve,” said Smith.

According to Smith, in the last 10 years, the city invested heavily in station control systems—less affected by accumulated debris—as old systems failed, often daily, due to deposition of the so-called flushable wipes. The problem is mostly in pump stations servicing residential areas around the city and lines serviced by Canal Winchester in Lithopolis and Pickerington.

“We have also spent many thousands of dollars in pump replacements at stations around the city as a direct cause of these wipes,” said Smith. “In 2011 we installed a machine to remove these wipes costing nearly $250,000, which has really helped at the plant, but can have no effect on the 11 pump stations we have throughout the city before the sewage reaches the plant.

Smith said this is happening for two reasons.

“First, these wipes are very convenient, not only for infants, but also for post-surgical care, and even for those folks who like to feel a little fresher following a trip to the restroom,” said Smith. “The industry world-wide is a multi-billion dollar concern.”

According to Smith, in the United States, class action lawsuits are being filed in an effort to combat the problem.

“Manufacturers are well aware of the problem,” said Smith. “The lawsuit is not seeking to have these removed from the market, but are simply asking that the word ‘flushable’ not only be removed from the label, but that a ‘do not flush’ illustration be prominently displayed on the package. The industry, believing that this will impact sales, has resisted.”

Canal Winchester is taking a multi-prong approach in combatting the problem by including information in bill stuffers and on the city’s Facebook page and articles in the city newsletter. Flyers were hand-delivered to every resident in Pickerington serviced by the city. Similar information was shared with Lithopolis.

The city is also sharing information with elementary school students in general discussions about city services and is in beginning stages of developing a city services handbook for residents.

This information, coupled with implementation and enforcement of the city’s grease trap cleaning ordinance for businesses and investment in equipment better suited to deal with the wipes, is enabling the city to retain continuity of service, though Smith said it remains problematic.

“The city spends over $4,000 per year vacuuming trash—wipes, tampon applicators, Q-tips and the like—from our stations,” said Smith. “Lithopolis has a station virtually destroyed by these wipes—broke the pumps shafts—and, as I recall, they still have a portable pump serving that station. This is not unique to us here in Canal Winchester, as virtually every sewer provider we know is being impacted. We have seen some improvement over the last few years, and very much appreciate the cooperation of our residents and sewer users. House plumbing and home sewage treatment systems can be severely impacted by trash and grease, resulting in costly repairs.”

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