Weary of clearing out sewer lines clogged with fats, oil and grease, Elk River is enlisting a new tool: the law.

Restaurants and food processors that fail to comply with a new city ordinance intended to limit the grease they discharge will face penalties ranging from fines to loss of water and sewer service beginning next month.

Certain areas of Elk River's 80 miles of sewer lines have problems every year with fats, oil and grease, officials said. Crews have to use a truck with a jet machine to break up the clogs.

"That's usually an extra $500 staff time and about $250 an hour just for the jet machine," said Suzanne Fischer, the city's community operations and development director.

The new fats, oil and grease (FOG) control ordinance will take effect Nov. 1, marking the end of a six-month grace period that began when the City Council adopted the measure in May.

The ordinance applies to food service establishments and food manufacturers and processors that discharge wastewater that contains fats, oil and grease into the city's sanitary sewer system. The affected group includes grocery stores, meat markets, hotels, correctional facilities, workplace cafeterias, hospitals, multitenant housing, commercial day-care centers, churches and catering services.

Such establishments will be required to have and maintain an adequate grease interceptor, commonly known as a grease trap; to develop and document best management practices for reducing grease discharges, including employee training and kitchen procedures; and to keep and submit records of their management practices and of service to their interceptors.

An establishment that is not in compliance with the cleaning standards will be responsible for the costs related to a sewer obstruction or overflow. In addition, the city may disconnect water and sewer service to establishments and the buildings they occupy for discharges that clog lines or result in overflows, and impose monthly fines until they're in compliance. Daily fines may occur for failure to maintain or furnish records.

'Gentle outreach'

Fischer, the community operations and development director, said the city is planning "a gentle outreach and education effort" to help 80 to 100 establishments understand how to comply with the ordinance.

"We recognized that if we're proactive and try and build a working relationship with restaurants and food service establishments, it's much more cost-effective in the long run for us," she said.

While chain restaurants usually have grease interceptors in place, some mom-and-pop establishments don't, Fischer said. The city will work with them to try to find alternatives if the cost of installing an interceptor creates a hardship, said Fischer. She said she also is looking for grants to help offset some costs.

Matt Stevens, chief operator of the city's wastewater treatment facility, said he approached restaurant owners a few years ago to ask them to reduce grease discharges but saw little improvement, with no way to enforce compliance.

'Now it's in writing'

"If somebody was doing it wrong, there was nothing for backup," Stevens said. "Now it's in writing. If we do see something that's bad, we can give them a notice to correct and then a violation as time goes on. For the most part, we want to work with these facilities. We don't want to drive anybody out of town, that's for sure."

Stevens invited 75 establishments to send someone to a presentation on the ordinance last month, but only four did.

"We have 21 lift stations in town, and we have grease issues in every single one," he said. "We clean half the town every year by jetting the system. It doesn't take more than a couple of weeks and those lines are filling up with grease again."

The ordinance requires establishments to install a grease interceptor before discharging wastewater into the city's system. Owners of new multitenant housing must install grease interceptors for each tenant unless the city approves an alternate plan. The owners of buildings that have more than one restaurant or food processor are responsible along with the operators of those establishments for servicing their interceptors and removing grease from downstream wastewater facilities where it may accumulate.

The city may require existing establishments and the owners of buildings that house them to install grease interceptors if their oil and grease discharges force the city to clean part of the wastewater system more than twice a year. The ordinance also sets standards for grease trap maintenance.

Elk River apparently is one of few cities in the state to adopt a FOG control ordinance, doing so under the authority of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Water Act of 1972, which regulates discharges of wastewater pollutants. In other cases, cities recommend that establishments follow best management practices for limiting grease discharges.

The city of Princeton adopted a FOG ordinance in 2012, in part to protect its investment in a $16 million upgrade that tripled the capacity of its wastewater plant in anticipation of future growth, public works director Bob Gerold said.

"Compliance has been good," Gerold said. "Our plant operator will on occasion look at grease traps to make sure they're being maintained. For new businesses coming into town, they'll be expected to install a proper-sized grease trap for their facility."

Todd Nelson is a freelance writer in Woodbury. His e-mail address is todd_nelson@mac.com.