Monday, September 03, 2012

Greasy Sewer Pipes

Lumpy grease buildup from cooked animal and vegetable fat from pizza joints, Chinese restaurants, cafes, giant franchises and grease from hundreds of millions of people nationwide clog our sewer lines. Coagulated fat from fried bacon, steaks, chicken, burgers and potatoes cools into a pipe-choking yellowish blob after flowing into sewers, causing serious overflows that threaten homes, creeks, rivers and bays. People use the sewer system as an alternative trash can.

This year and last, Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC) inspectors issued 31 citations to establishments in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties for failing to properly maintain interceptors that stop thick grease from backing up pipes.

When you put grease on top of food products, it is like glue. It sticks to the pipes. In the extensive and poorly funded American sewer infrastructure, with pipes as old as the Gettysburg Address in many places, grease from commercial operations and households is causing up to 40 percent of sewer overflows nationwide that back raw sewage into sinks and bathtubs and into local waterways.

Money used by utilities to upgrade facilities and cut down on overflows to meet Environmental Protection Agency regulations could buy larger and more efficient pipes that can overcome grease, tree roots and other problems. But the estimated pricetag for fixing the nation’s new water infrastructure over the next 20 years is steep — $334 billion, according to the EPA. So cash-strapped utilities are making do with what they have, relying on patch work.

Wastewater treatment inspectors bypass homeowners and target businesses with fines. Last year, for example, WSSC hit a local mall with penalties of nearly $10,000 for interceptors that failed to trap enough grease. The mall finally bought interceptors worth $200,000 after being threatened with a $50,000 fine. In 2009, Fairfax County sued a donut plant in a dispute over whether a facility in Lorton flooded its sewers with grease. The donut company settled the case for nearly $2 million. Last year, as in years past, the WSSC paid $82,000 to suck grease out of that one station. There are about 45 others.

Sewer overflows caused by grease trigger fines because they are among the worst stinking, with no rain or stormwater runoff to dilute waste that oozes from manhole covers and up toilets and kitchen sinks — and often into waters that sustain wildlife and that people rely on for recreation. If a sanitary sewer overflow happens with grease and not rain, it is pure raw waste.

During the 2002 swimming season, sewer discharges from pipes prior to treatment were responsible for 7 percent of beach closings and advisories, according to an EPA survey. Along with the smell, microbial pathogens are a good reason to avoid sewer overflows. Just touching them can make people queasy enough to vomit, or worse. Eating shellfish contaminated by an overflow has put people in hospitals. According to EPA, you don’t have to swallow microbes to get sick; they can seep through your skin.

WSSC recommends that you buy a plastic container or tin can, pour grease into it, let it cool, then toss it in the trash.  Of course, most homeowners ignore this advice.  (Wash Post, 9/2/2012)

Additional Information:

WSSC Fats, Oil & Grease Program

U.S. Army Corp of Engineers - WSSC Consent Decree on Rehab of Sewer Pipes

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