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'Flushable' wipes create logjam for local pumping stations

'Flushable' wipes create logjam for local pumping stations

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NORMAL — So much for being flushable.

Turns out the wipes dam the pipes.

Just ask Normal Public Works Director Wayne Aldrich, Bloomington City Engineer Kevin Kothe or Randy Stein, executive director of the Bloomington Normal Water Reclamation District, who have had to deal with the downstream aftermath.

"The wipes tend to bond together with other wipes and form a solid mass," said Aldrich.

And, that can cause problems for the town's pumping stations. "If left alone, it could damage the equipment," he said.

The other day, town crews noticed an unusual vibration at the Airport Road pumping station. When the pumps were pulled to check out the problem, both had remnants of flushed wipes.

"They don't degrade," said Pete Lies, service coordinator for Electric Pump, the company that services the equipment in Normal's pumping stations. 

Lies said the wipes also have the tendency to stretch, making it easier for them to get caught in different parts of the pumps.

Pump manufacturers have sent out warnings. Lawsuits have been filed because of the damage the wipes have caused some homeowners with septic tanks. Numerous cities across the country, including New York, have urged residents not to flush the wipes because the problems they are causing in the sewer system is costing a bundle in repairs. One report said New York City's repair bill was $18 million.

Last month, the Federal Trade Commission reached a settlement with one manufacturer to stop advertising the wipes are flushable "unless it can substantiate that the product is safe to flush."

There's a "What2Flush Movement;" "Patty Potty," a new spokeswoman who is trying to help Texas tackle the problem; and seminars in California and Ontario, Canada, trying to get the word out. There also is a YouTube video that parodies MC Hammer, called "Can't Flush This."

Kothe said Bloomington added a bar screen at its Whittenberg Woods pump station because of problems with the wipes. That screen has to be cleaned about once a month, he said. Before the screen was added, crews had to use vacuum trucks to suck out the clogs about six times a year.

Stein said similar clogs don't happen at the Bloomington Normal Water Reclamation District because it deals with a much higher volume of water and its pumps have more horsepower.

"Little wipes or rags are not going to stick in there," he said.

As an added precaution, the district changed out the bar screens from coarse to fine to be sure nothing gets through to damage the pumps.

"They capture everything bigger than 10 millimeters," he said.

But the plant does see the remains of the wipes after they've gone through all the town and city pumps and the pumps at the reclamation district.

Stein said at the final step, excess water is squeezed out of everything that is captured and the clumps that are left are dumped into containers.

"It's largely what I call rags," he said, referring to the remains of the "flushable wipes." 

Normal's message to residents (as suggested by one Normal Public Works Department's employee): No wipes in the pipes.

Follow Mary Ann Ford on Twitter: @pg_ford

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