WASHINGTON — For years, Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s nonvoting member of Congress, has complained that the discourse on Capitol Hill is in the toilet.
This time, she’s right.
The nonwoven fabrics industry is lobbying Congress to reverse a D.C. law that regulates wet wipes — the moist, disposable towelettes that have found an emerging market among adults for whom toilet tissue won’t do.
The law says wet wipes are Kryptonite to the city’s sewer system, wrapping and tangling themselves around pumps and screens and clumping together to form monster clogs that disrupt service and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to clear.
Starting next year, companies that make wet wipes sold in the District must prove that products labeled “flushable” won’t damage the pipes. Otherwise, the package must make it clear that flushing the wipes is a no-no.
At least six states – including Maryland – have proposed similar legislation, and only the District has successfully passed a law.
But in the same way that Congress has tried to stymie D.C. laws over subsidized abortion for low-income women, assisted suicide and marijuana distribution, a lawmaker could attach a “rider” to an appropriations bill and override the D.C. Council.
“This is a sneaky little backdoor way for these companies to frustrate the local decision by the people of the District of Columbia,” council member Mary Cheh, the bill’s author, said. “They do it, which is really gross, at the behest of industry representatives.”
The D.C. law says a wipe is only flushable it if breaks apart quickly, sinks and is free of plastic.
Rep. Andy Harris, R-Maryland, a frequent D.C. antagonist who was visited by an industry lobbyist last month, said he is reviewing the issue and considering ways to block the legislation. He said it amounts to a ban because companies are unlikely to produce special “nonflushable” packaging to be sold in the District alone.
“Since Congress has the ultimate say over what goes on in Washington, D.C., it’s possible we would deal with this through an appropriations measure that makes D.C. think twice about banning a product that’s helpful — flushable wipes,” said Harris, who is Maryland’s only Republican member of Congress and sits on the House Appropriations Committee.
He opposes the D.C. law because he said it sets a flushability standard that no company could meet and would force products off the shelves. Without wipes to use in the bathroom, he said, people could turn to whatever’s available, such as baby wipes,flush them anyway and make the sewer problem worse.
As a father of five who lives on a property with a septic tank, Harris chuckled and said, “I’m very attuned to what you can flush down into a sewer.”
Norton said if Harris or others tried to block the District’s wipes law, she would try to shame them into abandoning the effort by asking whether their constituents thousands of miles away worry about what goes down the drain in Washington.
“This is a serious issue,” she said, “but it’s hard not to laugh when a lobbyist group is trying to keep the Congress from taking action that would keep its own sewers and the sewers of the District of Columbia from being stopped up.”
The Association of Nonwoven Fabrics Industry, which represents the makers of wet wipes, declined to make a representative available for an interview. In response to written questions, the association said it thinks that the wipes are “compatible” with wastewater systems and noted that much of what is found there isn’t meant to be flushed.
The industry just wrapped up its international conference, billed as a “four-day full immersion in the World of Wipes®” including a panel called “Flushability News, Views and Fake News.”
City officials insist they are not anti-wipe, they just want them disposed of properly – in the trash. They can clog pipes in homes and businesses as well as city systems.
“We have seen them at all stages of the treatment process,” George S. Hawkins, the general manager of D.C. Water, said. “It’s like a gluing agent that can capture other things and cause backups.”
Cynthia Finley, of the National Association of Clean Water Agencies, said lawmakers have tried unsuccessfully to regulate wipes in Maine, California, New Jersey and, more recently, Maryland, Minnesota and New York.
In the absence of state or federal standards for flushability, the industry uses a “slosh box test” that she said sends the wipe on the equivalent of a whitewater rafting trip, causing it to break down, while wipes in sewer systems take more of a lazy river cruise.
There are several wipes made by Japanese companies — the toilet technology experts — that meet the city’s definition of flushable, she said.
Before the bill passed last year, an industry lobbyist visited Cheh in her office to explain how his client’s wet wipes were flushable. She tested his theory and submerged a wipe in a bowl of water. Nothing happened.
“He even poked it around with his pen,” she said. Left soaking overnight, the wipe remained intact and, she said, “I never heard from him again.”