BANGOR, Maine — The last time you ate at a Bangor restaurant you probably didn’t spend much time thinking about what was going down the drain in the kitchen. City officials have been thinking about it a lot and are beefing up efforts to ensure restaurants are doing all they can to prevent grease, fat and oil from wreaking havoc in the city’s sewer system.
Every year, the Bangor Wastewater Treatment Plant collects about 58 tons of grease, coagulated fat and oil that has made its way through city sewers to the plant. That grease is shipped off to a landfill. This year, that work is expected to cost the city about $15,000, according to Brad Moore, plant superintendent.
If the plant didn’t remove that waste, the grease would end up in the Penobscot River.
Some grease comes to the plant after it is dumped down the sinks of residents who have cooked their pound of bacon in the morning or browned a skillet of ground beef for tacos. The vast majority, however, comes from restaurants that aren’t in compliance with city codes that require them to use systems to prevent as much grease as possible from getting into the sewer system, Moore said.
“When [the grease] cools off as it starts to get down into the sewer system, it starts coating the sides of the pipes and it actually can coat it to the point where it can block up the pipe,” Moore said.
That means sending a machine that shoots a high-pressure water jet down the pipe to free up the clog and placing a vacuum truck at the other end to suck out the grease, all of which is an added expense to the city.
“We’re talking about two big, expensive pieces of equipment and four personnel dedicated to cleaning that one section of line,” Moore said.
Crews are sent out to clear drains of congealed grease on a regular basis, he said, some of them repeatedly.
Most often, the clogged pipes can be found “downstream” of areas with a high concentration of restaurants, Moore said, so the city is putting its focus there.
Bangor wastewater treatment officials are implementing a new fats, oil and grease program aimed at dramatically reducing the amount of grease that ends up in the plant and in the city’s roughly 160 miles of sewer lines.
“We have sent out a letter to the food service establishments that we believe have nothing [in terms of grease collection systems] and we’ll be working with them to get them to comply with the ordinance,” Moore said. He declined to name any of those businesses, but did say clogging is most often a problem on any street or in any area with a high volume of eateries.
Grease collection systems come in several forms, from a “passive device” similar to a septic tank that goes underground to a smaller mechanized piece of equipment that can be installed above ground, Moore said. The prices can range from $5,000 to $15,000 depending on what’s needed in the system, he added.
That’s a hefty expense, especially for some mom-and-pop eateries, so the city is starting a grant program, which will cover up to $5,000 worth of each system installation. That program will be funded through wastewater connection fees.
In the meantime, restaurants without grease traps can take early steps to reduce the amount of grease they’re sending into the sewers, Moore said. For example, they can scrape grease and food scraps into the trash before tossing dishes into the sink or dishwasher.
Moore said it’s important to note that many food establishments in the city already have the necessary grease traps in place. This program’s goal is to get those that aren’t yet in compliance on board.
In the past, the city has sent out fliers and leaflets along with sewer bills in order to inform home cooks that they should be pouring their grease into empty cans or the trash for disposal and restaurants that they should invest in a grease trap system.
The program is still in early stages, and will be submitted soon to Maine DEP for approval.
The city also has drafted an enforcement plan to levy against any business that refuses to work toward resolving grease, fat and oil problems.
It targets businesses that might try to withhold or report false information, those that don’t comply and intentionally ignore or defy the city’s attempts to get them to comply. The “response guide” lays out punishments that range from setting a schedule to install a grease control device to potential fines or litigation.
Businesses that cooperate and work with the city on a plan to get grease traps shouldn’t face penalties, Moore said.
“We just don’t want to go there if we don’t have to,” Moore said.
Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.