A snarled, crap-covered monster often creeps the bowels below Lansing, ready to clog up pipes and treatment facilities at a moment’s notice. And taxpayers continue to feed the beast, one expensive toilet flush at a time.
Tangled clumps of so-called “flushable” wipes — many of which are not meant to be flushed — for years have caused problems for municipal wastewater facilities across the country. State lawmakers last week took some of the first strides toward curbing continued headaches. The issue: Sanitary products might go down the commode but they don’t often make it much farther along.
“We’re seeing that a lot of times they’re creating a real havoc on the infrastructure,” said State Rep. Tom Cochran, who represents much of Ingham County in Michigan’s 67th District. “The idea here is that people need to be made aware of the problem. We don’t want them banned. We just want them labeled.”
Cochran last week introduced House Bill 6279, which would require manufacturers of pre-moistened towels — like baby wipes or makeup removers — to clearly label their products as “non-flushable.” Too often these wipes derail operations for wastewater treatment and it has taken a costly toll on local municipalities, Cochran said.
Sid Scrimger, who heads up Lansing’s wastewater plant, said the constant influx of debris has forced his already short-staffed department into overdrive. Thirty-one pump stations siphon wastewater from the city’s underground for treatment. And Scrimger said all of them, at some point, have been clogged by the wipes.
“A lot of times we have to send workers to take those pipes apart when there’s a clog,” Scrimger added. “It creates a lot of work for these guys, and as you can imagine, it’s not clean work. The more of these wipes that can be kept out of the system, the fewer problems we’re going to have. They just don’t disintegrate like they should.”
Scrimger couldn’t estimate the financial costs associated with maintaining the pipes, but he suggested damage control from the wipes accounted for a sizeable chunk of his department’s budget. The problems and related costs are difficult to gauge but officials in Grand Rapids suggested the annual toll could be as high as $400,000.
Environmental Services Director Mike Lunn, whose department received regional accolades for its “No Wipes in the Pipes” campaign, said Grand Rapids has worked with manufacturers to develop increased standards for what constitutes a “flushable” wipe. He recalled one massive chunk of debris that required specialized tools to extract.
“Many of these systems are older and they’re just really not designed for these wipes,” Lunn added.
Cochran’s bill was proposed in parallel with state Sen. Steve Bieda’s Senate Bill 1088. They said the language is virtually identical. And Senate Resolution No. 175 — also introduced last week by a trio of state senators — urges federal legislators to enact laws that further stipulate labeling requirements for certain manufacturers.
Both bills will receive their first readings later this month as they inch closer to becoming law, officials said.
“Not only can they do a lot of damage to the plumbing in your house but the cumulative impact on wastewater treatment facilities is tremendous,” Bieda said. “It’s based on a strong concern for the environment and the taxpayer. It seemed like a common sense issue, and people tend to follow clearly labeled rules.”
State representative turned Macomb County Public Works Commissioner Candice Miller said 99 percent of the debris collected in southeastern Michigan’s wastewater systems are from flushable wipes. Her county fills an entire dumpster with the products daily. And the concerns aren’t just limited to municipal water systems.
Sanitary wipes have been known to block up residential septic tanks as well. Officials at Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality warned that failing septic systems can contaminate groundwater and release bacteria, viruses and other household toxins into local waterways. Their advice: Don’t overload the commode.
“If we don’t take action on it, we’re going to see bigger problems down the road,” Bieda said. “Just putting the information out there will hopefully have people think twice about flushing things. Frankly, the understanding that it could cost” taxpayers “if they don’t stop should create another incentive. This is really a bipartisan thing.”