Energy & Environment

Wastewater operators: Don’t flush wipes!

Rutland wastewater treatment tanks
Rutland’s Wastewater Treatment Facility. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

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While headlines have focused on bare toilet paper shelves, wastewater operators in Vermont are raising a related concern: people using disinfectant wipes and paper towels to clean surfaces and flushing them down the toilet.

They say even the wipes labelled as “flushable” can clog pipes and jam up pumping stations. And with pared-down staff and concerns about how long the coronavirus can survive in wastewater, this is a “bad time” for wastewater staff and homeowners to be doing repairs. 

“It’s the same thing we’ve been saying forever,” said Bob Fischer, water quality superintendent at South Burlington and chair of the government affairs committee for the Green Mountain Water Environment Association. “Don’t flush anything but the three p’s: pee, poo and toilet paper.”

Vermont Rural Water Association, which provides training for drinking and wastewater treatment operators around the state, said last week that operators were already dealing with “clogged wastewater infrastructure” due to people flushing wipes and other items. While toilet paper readily dissolves, wipes and paper towels do not break down as easily. 

Fischer said the South Burlington treatment station should be fine because of screens in place, but he’s worried about non-flushables wreaking havoc at the 34 pumping stations upstream. He’s cut down on staffing temporarily so that he can bring in healthy people if someone gets sick, and he’s concerned about any additional potential exposure to pathogens. 

“There’s been no real national guidance yet on how long this lasts in a wastewater system,” he said of COVID-19. “But if it’s clogged up, they’ve got to go out there and rod it out and pull stuff out of the pumps.” 

Fischer added that he’s seen firsthand what throwing disinfecting wipes in the toilet can do to home plumbing. His “1890 house” clogged up on Christmas Eve a few years back. The culprit? Lysol wipes his wife had flushed after cleaning. 

“And I was like ‘are you kidding me? The trash can is right next to the toilet!,” Fischer said, adding that his family was particularly mortified since he’d just appeared on WCAX a few months earlier to talk about clogs. “And she said ‘yeah … I thought you were overreacting. I’ll never do it again.’ And she hasn’t.” 

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Jeff Wennberg, director of public works for the city of Rutland, said he has not had any emergency calls yet but wants to get the word out beforehand. (He noted happily that a post on the department’s Facebook page about not flushing non-flushables had more than 8,000 shares by Thursday night.) 

Of flushable wipes, Wennberg said, “If it were up to me I’d ban them or at least require a large label attached” saying that they do not break down.

“I can guarantee you, you put enough of that stuff down the toilet, your sewer line is going to back up,” he added. 

Wennberg also said he’s been telling his staff to be extra diligent about wearing personal protective equipment because COVID-19 could persist in the particles coming off aeration tanks at the plant. While the CDC ranks the possibility for transmission of the novel coronavirus through wastewater systems as “low,” it notes that there was “documented transmission” of SARS from sewage aerosols. 

Wennberg added that of all the Department of Public Works staff, the wastewater treatment division has used the least sick leave. 

“They’re a pretty healthy bunch,” Wennberg said. 

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Elizabeth Gribkoff

About Elizabeth

Elizabeth Gribkoff is VTDigger's energy and environment reporter. She graduated from UVM's Environmental Studies program in 2013, receiving departmental honors for her thesis on women's farming networks in Chile and Vermont. Since graduating, Elizabeth has worked in conservation and sustainable agriculture. Most recently, she was a newsroom and reporting intern with VTDigger.

Email: [email protected]

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