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Flushable bathroom wipes blamed for Tampa Bay area sewer clogs

Published Oct. 2, 2013

Bathroom wipes touted as a flushable alternative to toilet paper are clogging sewer systems across the Tampa Bay area and costing taxpayers significant money for emergency cleanups.

While manufacturers insist their wipes aren't the culprit, authorities here say the increase in clogs came with an increase in marketing of the popular product during the past five years.

Richard Cummings, who oversees Hillsborough County's sewer collection, calls flushable wipes insidious.

Manufacturers keep adding more plastic, Cummings said, so the wipes are sturdy enough to be used by consumers. But all that plastic gets stuck in pumps and forms a massive ball, he said.

Cummings, along with authorities in Pinellas County and the city of Tampa, say taxpayers are paying for emergency maintenance to keep sewers from overflowing into streets and houses. Cummings said Hillsborough paid $195,000 during the past two years just to combat the clogs.

Pinellas authorities have tried to adapt, said Bob Powell, who oversees the county's water and sewer divisions. They bought finer water filters to screen the waste and equipment that is less likely to catch on the fibers.

The problem is not unique to this area, or even the U.S.

Sewer agencies in many states are blaming premoistened "personal" wipes for stuffing their pipes and jamming their pumps. And this year, a 15-ton glob of wipes and hardened cooking grease — nicknamed "Fatberg" by the Brits — was discovered in a London sewer pipe.

In Hillsborough this week, Del Tempel, a plant maintenance mechanic, hooked a rope to a pump 30 feet in the ground at a station off Linebaugh Avenue that is plagued by clogs. Tempel regularly cuts and untangles the mess, which he refers to as "mop strings," with pliers, screwdrivers and cutters.

The work is intensive and unpleasant, though Tempel says he no longer notices the powerful stench. Hillsborough County has more than 700 pump stations and every day teams of workers have to untangle such messes.

Manufacturers of the wipes insist the clogs are made from people flushing things they shouldn't.

"I wonder how they determine what is what in that morass of stuff," said Phil Pitt, a spokesman for the Association of the Nonwoven Fabrics Industry.

It could very well be remnants of baby wipes, feminine products and paper towels, he said. "Forensic data supports that it is."

Wipes labeled flushable have to pass a disintegration test, Pitt said, although he wouldn't say the wipes do disintegrate.

Pitt said the industry has been and will continue to work with wastewater industry to find a solution to "our differences of opinion."

Cummings said he can't prove the plastic strands are from wipes. Workers recognize some other things, like underwear, floss, condoms and feminine products.

Items that don't disintegrate sometimes make their way through pumps to wastewater treatment sites, where they gob up screens and require more workers to clean and dispose of the mess.

Unfortunately, Cummings said, some people think when they flush that "God takes over."

Authorities on both sides of the bay want people to follow a simple rule: Flush only human waste and toilet paper.

Times staffer writers Richard Danielson and Anna Phillips contributed to this report. Elisabeth Parker can be reached at eparker@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3431.

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