When city workers went to unclog a blocked sewer pipe that had spilled an estimated 39,000 gallons of sewage off Glen Eden Drive earlier this month, they say they found a culprit familiar to them: “Flushable wipes.”
About 12 miles away in Cary, at the headquarters of INDA, the Association of the Nonwoven Fabrics Industry, the city’s conclusion did not go over well. INDA has spent years defending flushable wipes against the charge that they are, in fact, not safe to flush.
The morning after he read about the spill on newsobserver.com, Dave Rousse sent an email to city Public Utilities Director Robert Massengill decrying the city’s assessment that flushable wipes were at fault.
“This is a convenient scapegoat to blame to meet the public reporting needs, but it is likely not the correct diagnosis,” Rousse, president of INDA, wrote.
Massengill forwarded the email to the department’s assistant director, T.J. Lynch, who replied later that day.
This is a convenient scapegoat to blame to meet the public reporting needs, but it is likely not the correct diagnosis.
Dave Rousse, president of INDA, the Association of the Nonwoven Fabrics Industry
“We have no reason to make up stories about what we are finding in our collections systems across the country,” Lynch wrote, speaking on behalf of the wastewater industry. “But we do have a duty to let our customers know why their environment is being impacted and why their rates are going up.”
The email exchange highlights a national conflict between the wipes industry and sewage utilities. The industry claims it has developed products that do sufficiently break apart when flushed down the toilet. The utilities say the wipes remain intact long enough to get caught up in pipes and pump stations; they say they often become magnets for grease and oils that also get improperly washed down the drain to create what those in the sewage business call “fatbergs” that gum up pipes.
The proximity of Raleigh to INDA’s headquarters in Cary means this dispute flares up from time to time here. Lynch says he’s been to visit INDA and that INDA representatives have come to the public utilities department, without producing any real mutual understanding.
A D.C. ban
The current epicenter of the battle over flushable wipes is the District of Columbia, where in December the D.C. Council passed the first local legislation in the nation that regulates the definition of “flushable,” and bans the sale of wipes that claim to be. George Hawkins, the general manager of DC Water, which handles the district’s sewage, says some wipes sold overseas would meet the district’s standards, but none of them are available in the United States.
Hawkins has been an outspoken critic of the wipes industry, and takes particular umbrage to INDA’s claims to have developed industry guidelines for determining what qualifies as a “flushable” wipe. INDA says its tests show that wipes that meet the guidelines do break down in a reasonable amount of time.
“Unfortunately, that standard was not agreed upon by anyone in the wastewater industry and does not meet a real definition of flushable,” Hawkins wrote in an op-ed in the Washington Examiner in December. “In fact, the wipes that claim to meet this standard stay fully intact after 30 minutes of traveling through the sewer system causing blockages, pump failures and sewer overflows.”
We do take offense to companies seeking to make a profit by making the determination what is flushable and what is not when that is not your call to make.
T.J. Lynch, assistant director of Raleigh’s Public Works department
INDA counters that utilities confuse flushable wipes with baby wipes and other non-flushable wipes that end up down the toilet. It has developed a “Do Not Flush” symbol that it encourages its member companies to include on non-flushable wipe products, and it urges consumers to take heed.
“The wipes industry is a responsible industry aware of the downstream issues caused by improper flushing on wipes not designed nor marketed to be flushed, but get flushed anyway,” Rousse wrote in his email to Massengill. “Our industry has engineered a wipe product for bathroom use that has the requisite properties needed to lose strength upon being flushed and not cause clogging in pumps. Those are the ‘Flushable Wipes’ that are getting the blame for issues caused by nonflushable wipes, paper towels and feminine hygiene items.”
Several years ago, Raleigh’s public utilities department tested various paper products, including facial tissues and wipes, to see how quickly they disintegrated in a beaker of swirling water. Toilet paper began to fall apart almost immediately, while the tissues and wipes – even those sold as flushable – remained almost completely intact.
Lynch concedes the flushable wipes have gotten better since then, but says they still don’t break down as fast as they should. He concluded his email to Rousse: “We do take offense to companies seeking to make a profit by making the determination what is flushable and what is not when that is not your call to make.”
So Raleigh, like many utilities, maintains a policy that only “water, human waste and toilet tissue” should be sent into the sewer system, a prescription Hawkins at DC Water sums up as the “3 P’s: pee, poop and (toilet) paper.”
Eight days after the sewage spill on Glen Eden Drive, and five days after the email exchange between Rousse and Lynch, a city crew responded to another sewage overflow near Crabtree Valley Mall that sent an estimated 4,500 gallons of sewage into a tributary of Crabtree Creek. The utilities department concluded the clog was the result of “grease and flushable wipes.”
More than wipes
The city of Raleigh Public Utilities Department reported 16 sewer overflows of 1,000 gallons or more in 2016, and six of those were blamed on a buildup of paper products, either alone or in combination with grease. Other causes include grease alone, roots, damage by a contractor, “rocks and debris” and, in one case, the structural failure of the pipe.
The 16 overflows spilled an estimated 741,821 gallons of untreated sewage. The city has just begun to track the cost of dealing with these spills, but T.J. Lynch, the assistant director of the utilities department, says “it is safe to say that cleanup costs are in the thousands of dollars per spill once you add labor and equipment charges.”