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Uptick in nonflushable items clogging sewer pipes, pumps

Norwich Public Utilities in recent weeks has seen an influx of nonflushable items in the sewer system, including wipes, rags and even a hand towel.

“You name it, people are flushing it,” NPU Wastewater Operations Integrity Manager Larry Sullivan said.

But he said people may not realize where those items are going and the problems they’re causing, from after-hour repair calls to costly wear and tear on infrastructure.

“We are seeing far more calls out for pump clogs than we ever have,” Sullivan said.

NPU has reported that the large uptick in nonflushable items started with the toilet paper shortage during the COVID-19 pandemic. People also are increasingly using cleaning wipes and then flushing them down the toilet.

Municipalities and utilities in southeastern Connecticut, as well as in other parts of the country, are stepping up their communications to warn people that flushing items other than toilet paper is putting stress on the sewer system.

Groton also is seeing an increase in nonflushable items, prompting City Mayor and Groton Utilities Commission Chairman Keith Hedrick to post a video on Facebook on the issue. NPU also posted a widely shared message with an image of a blocked sewer pipe.

“We’re seeing more disposable wipes and towels and towelettes and other things that don’t belong in the sewer system,” Hedrick said in a phone interview. Those items then clump together into large masses that clog pumps."

He said the situation has gotten worse week by week, likely because people are wiping down surfaces more and more during the COVID-19 pandemic and then flushing the wipes, rather than throwing them away.

Workers are cleaning pump stations on a daily basis, he said. That not only takes away time that could be spent on maintenance and other parts of their job, but also puts wear and tear on the system’s pipes and pump stations. He said if the pumps clog badly enough, they could break.

Rick Stevens, manager of the water and wastewater division of Groton Utilities, said GU is seeing daily problems of clogged pipes or pumps, whereas before it may have seen those issues once a week.

Two weeks ago, East Lyme also had a big problem, with maintainers having to frequently clean screens, East Lyme Public Works Director Joe Bragaw said.

On the East Lyme Public Safety Facebook page, the town posted that due to the coronavirus situation, the Water and Sewer Department was experiencing an “increase of disinfectant wipes, baby wipes, and paper towels clogging our wastewater pump stations.”

“As we all work together to resist infection, please refrain from dumping these products down the drain, and instead place them in the trash!” the post added.

Bragaw said he thinks the post helped curtail the issue, and the town had a much better week this past week.

Derek Albertson, superintendent of the water pollution control facility in Montville, said his town also is taking proactive steps.

Stonington WPCA Executive Director Douglas Nettleton said thankfully the town has not yet had an increase in clogging. But he alerted operators about two weeks ago that the shortage of toilet paper could become an issue. He said nonflushable items can mean big problems for Stonington’s system, because many of its pump stations are on the smaller side.

He said it can take two or three people to unclog a single pump, which would create a big problem at this time, as employees are practicing social distancing for their safety.

Joseph Lanzafame, New London’s director of public utilities, said New London has not yet seen an uptick.

He said people should keep in mind that if they are flushing items other than toilet paper, there’s a good chance that they will first cause an issue for their residence’s own plumbing, which could be very costly to repair.

For the city, it creates even bigger issues in the long run, he said. When rags and other nonflushable items get bound up in the city’s pump stations, it could lead to problems like sewage backups in areas.

Stevens said clogs could cause mechanical failures and also pose a threat to the environment if sewage overflows.

He said everyone should treat all wipes as nonflushable.

“Even though some people market them that way, they were never truly designed to degrade in the environment,” Stevens said, adding that they should be put in a separate package and put in the garbage.

“That protects our workers. It protects the environment. It really is full protection all the way around for everybody,” he said.

k.drelich@theday.com

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