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Continued: Cities' sewers are flush with junk

  • Article by: MARY JANE SMETANKA , Star Tribune
  • Last update: February 10, 2012 - 11:46 PM

Listen up, people. Dave Goergen and his colleagues in cities across Minnesota would like to tell you two things.

1. Your toilet is not a garbage can.

2. Grandma was right when she collected used cooking oil in a coffee can and reused it or let it cool before putting it in the garbage. She didn't pour hot oil down the sink, like you do.

Goergen is Edina's utility coordinator. One of his duties is to make sure the city's 180 miles of sanitary sewer efficiently ferries wastewater from thousands of toilets, showers, sinks and washing machines off to the water treatment plant.

If only it were that easy.

Modern conveniences that make life easier for most of us are actually complicating the job for city sewer departments. Garbage disposals seem to have encouraged people to put all sorts of things, including hot oil, down the sink. Tough and supposedly "disposable" cleaning products like Swiffer dusting sheets, fiber rags and even stronger paper towels can also create problems.

"Just because it's disposable doesn't mean it's flushable," said Robert Hintgen, Richfield's superintendent of utilities. "And paper towels are not the same thing as toilet paper."

Dental floss: A nightmare

Among the objects that have been removed from sewers in Richfield, Edina and Hopkins are silverware (especially spoons), car keys, cellphones, necklaces, rings, scrap lumber, coins, underwear and a fully inflated basketball.

Also found, probably courtesy of a curious toddler hovering over the toilet bowl and flushing: G.I. Joe action figures, Smurfs, troll dolls, grandma's dentures and dad's or mom's watch.

Don't even get sewer folks started on dental floss. It gets tangled in the pumps that propel wastewater through lift stations and snags on the rough insides of old pipes, catching floating debris. And it never, ever decays.

"Dental floss causes havoc," said Hintgen. When a lift station pump slows, the culprit often is a mass of tangled floss wrapped in the machinery.

When Hopkins water and sewer Superintendent Doug Anderson started his career more than 30 years ago, the guys who did the grunt work were handed a rain slicker, hard hat, 5-gallon bucket on a rope and a foldable shovel. Down they went into the manholes, with no thought about the dangers of sewer gas or safety features like the harnesses workers use today.

A fermenting mess

Anderson said his most disgusting encounter in a blocked sewer was when he and Goergen were working together and came across reeking sludge that looked like "a big butterscotch malt." Anderson, who had developed a strong stomach on the job, said it was the worst thing he had ever smelled. It was pie dough, apparently from a nearby restaurant.

"Think human waste and yeast, sitting and fermenting," Anderson said.

Workers at a nearby restaurant denied they were dumping dough, but when Goergen looked in a back room he saw "a guy running a hot water hose and another guy jumping up and down on the dough on top of the drain hole in the floor."

People seem to think they can put anything down the sink with hot water, but Goergen said it does not help with what sewer experts call FOG: fats, oils and grease. People often pour oil or grease down the sink thinking that the hot water from a dishwasher will disperse the oil. Instead, grease hardens on cool pipe walls, narrowing pipe channels and catching whatever comes sailing by.

Anderson said that when Hopkins cleans some of its 44 miles of sewer, it's common to see what looks like "great big slabs of white ribs," three and four feet long, break loose and float by. It's solidified grease.

Dumping fats down the sink has become more common in the past five to 10 years, Goergen said, and it's becoming a problem even in residential sewer lines that run from house to street. In the old days, Hintgen said, grease build-up in sewer lines indicated a restaurant nearby. Sewers near automotive repair shops had an "oily, gassy smell," and he always knew a laundromat was nearby when there were lots of quarters in the sewer.

Flush a diamond? Good luck

Anderson keeps some of the oddities that have been found in the sewers, including partial dentures, in his "trophy room" to show visitors. All three sewer supervisors said they have done special searches of sewers after panicky calls about valuables that have been flushed or drained away. But they're rarely recovered.

Sometimes, that may be for the best, Anderson said.

"People complain about how expensive a denture is, but do they really want to wear one that's been in the sewer?" Anderson asked.

Richfield's strangest mystery in its 120 miles of sewer was when a 2-foot length of railroad tie blocked a pipe. Hintgen said the wood was so saturated that it had swelled inside the pipe and couldn't be removed. The city had to break up the street and replace the sewer line.

Anderson said sewer problems in Hopkins have actually eased a bit since the city began asking people who have their residential sewer lines cleaned of roots to let the city know. The city does a quick jetting of the sewer on that street, trying to prevent any roots that escaped the plumber's saw from washing down the street and creating sewer backups at neighboring homes.

"We're asking people to think of their neighbors," he said. "Remember that whatever you put down the drain can affect the people next door or down the street."

Mary Jane Smetanka • 612-673-7380 Twitter: @smetan

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