Flushed baby wipes causing multimillion-dollar problems for Maine wastewater systems

Posted Jan. 21, 2014, at 6:10 p.m.
Patricia Aho
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WESTBROOK, Maine — While the propellers in Portland Water District pump stations can chew up and spit out a wide range of items that never should have been flushed down toilets to begin with, baby wipes are causing multimillion-dollar problems.

“Cellphones and games and toys and dentures and eyeglasses, you name it,” said Aubrey Strause, a Scarborough wastewater engineer and president of the Augusta-based Maine WasteWater Control Association. “We find Matchbox cars and lots of money — we find lots and lots of stuff in the sewer. … Some of our propellers, you can put bricks through them and two-by-fours through them and they’ll just grind it up, but not the baby wipes.”

Unfortunately, area residents don’t stuff enough money down the drains to pay for the damage caused by the baby wipes. All the properties that make the wipes ideal for wiping dirty bottoms — strong, stretchy and durable — make them trouble for pump station gears.

Portland Water District’s East Bridge and Cottage Place pump stations in Westbrook needed $4.5 million in repairs in 2009 because of damage caused by baby wipes and similar unflushable products, and the district now says another 80 pump stations are “in danger” of needing similar work.

On Tuesday, Strause and water district leaders joined representatives of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection and INDA — the association that represents the world’s nonwoven fabrics industry — in Westbrook to launch an ambitious outreach campaign on the topic of baby wipes.

The message: Go ahead and use baby wipes and other unflushable cleaning items, just don’t flush them down the toilet afterward.

The group will launch a series of television commercials on Time Warner Cable starting Wednesday and has put up a website, www.SaveYourPipes.org.

The campaign is notable given the backdrop of a debate at the national level between industry advocates and sanitary district officials over whether “flushable” wipes are actually safe to flush.

In the local case, the public and private organizations are lining up on the same side and agree wipes shouldn’t be put down the drain.

“We actually have gone to pump stations, like the Cottage Place Pump Station, and done forensics on what’s getting caught in the pumps,” said Michelle Clements, spokeswoman for the water district. “Baby wipes are about 16 to 20 percent of the material, and they’re just so strong, they don’t break apart. Our operators find that they just bind everything up in this really sturdy material.

“It’s very expensive to fix. We’ve spent $4.5 million on a screening system for these pump stations,” she continued. “A simpler, easier and more cost-effective solution would be to not flush baby wipes.”

Patricia Aho, commissioner of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, described the widespread flushing of baby wipes as an environmental problem as well.

“Too many of us just flush the toilet and do not know — or care to know — what happens next, but the Department of Environmental Protection would like to challenge all of us to think further than the flush,” she said in prepared remarks. “What goes down the toilet comes out eventually. And our wastewater treatment operators, who are truly the frontline defenders of protecting one of Maine’s most valuable natural resources — our clean water — must handle what comes out on the other end.”

Aho said clogs can be trouble on a small scale, bursting pipes in a home, or on a larger scale like what the water district found at its pump stations.

“Seemingly inconsequential individual actions make a big difference when taken collectively,” she said. “The flushing of baby wipes does make a difference — it costs money to fix a clogged pipe, whether at your home or at your town’s wastewater plant, and it contaminates our water with harmful bacteria.”

Strause hopes the outreach campaign against flushing baby wipes will start some changes.

“It can be your own problem and your own belongings at stake. Besides that, who wants to clean up a basement full of sewage?” Strause said.

 

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