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Waste Treatment Plants Finding More Than Sewage Coming Through The Pipes


Rick Boston

Rick Feltenberger, plant operator for the Roaring Spring Borough Municipal Authority, shows some of the items people have flushed down their toilets that have made their way to the waste treatment plant. Plant operators say people are flushing objects that can cause major damage to pipes and equipment.

From a public health perspective, the modern sewage treatment plant is as important as vaccines. As recently as the beginning of the 20th Century, raw sewage was diverted from homes into trenches with the idea that it would eventually make its way into the rivers and streams.

During the 1800s and through the Civil War, Washington, D.C., was a cesspool of human waste. Raw sewage was dumped into the Washington Canal on the Potomac Flats, where today stands the Lincoln and World War II memorials.

The canal led to the Potomac River, with the idea that once it hit the water, it was no longer a problem. However, the accumulated sewage would cause the canal to stagnate and sewage would overflow onto the land.

The summer heat would magnify the smell of the sewage, bringing mosquitos and rats, along with the malaria and typhoid they carried, and officials began to finally see the need for proper disposal of raw sewage.

Focus on Treatment

As sewage systems across the country began to develop, the focus was on getting it out of our cities and into rivers and oceans. The treatment of raw sewage would come over time as the environmental impact of dumping it straight into our waters was realized.

It wasn't until 1972, with the passage of the Clean Water Act, that the government placed regulations on what can be dumped into the streams and rivers.

Sewage treatment plants are the first and last lines of defense for keeping harmful waste from getting into streams and rivers. It is an expensive and complex system that filters out the harmful bacteria and cleans the wastewater before disposing it.

Another important function of these plants is to catch the things that shouldn't be there in the first place, foreign objects that if they made their way into streams and rivers, could have a devastating effect on the environment.

Foreign Objects

Rick Feltenberger has been manning the Roaring Spring Municipal Authorities Sewage Treatment plant for almost 30 years. The plant averages approximately 500,000 gallons of sewage per day through its system.

Everything flushed down a borough toilet ends up at the plant. Feltenberger is responsible for not only treating it, but maintaining the equipment to keep it operational, a task made more difficult with the amount of foreign objects – things that should not be flushed – making their way to the treatment facility.

"I have caught a mophead, pool balls, a three-pound coffee can, money and a doll's head among other things," he said.

How these things make it down the toilet is a mystery to Feltenberger, but once they do, they can cause problems.

"Dental floss is a big problem for me," he said. "When people flush it down the toilet, it wraps around and clogs the pumps."

Roaring Spring's treatment plant has a screen designed to catch most of these objects, but if they do get through, they are ground up by a series of brushes that are designed to grind up waste. When needed to break down more solid objects, it wears out the brushes quickly, causing the need for an expensive replacement.

Joe Lansberry, Williamsburg Borough manager has seen his share of foreign objects make their way to the plant.

"I've had a washcloth get stuck in the pumps, a mop head and have found cellphones in the wet well," he said. "How someone managed to flush them is beyond me."

In Martinsburg, Borough Manager Rich Brantner said he has seen rags, toys and even hypodermic needles make their way into the sewer system.

"You never know what you will find," he said. "We have pulled out jewelry and even a hockey puck."

While these objects have no business getting flushed down the toilet, the plant operators say that if they make it through the lines down to the plants, the screens can usually catch them before they cause damage to the pumps, but the potential always exists.


not degradable

It should be obvious that objects like these should not go down the toilet, but the thing that is causing sewer plants the most time and money is something that people are being encouraged to flush by manufacturers – flushable wipes.

Lansberry said he was called to investigate a sewage backup at a residence and discovered it was caused by an accumulation of flushable wipes.

"What happens is one gets flushed and gets caught on a root or a rough part of the pipe and gets stuck there," he said. "Then the next one gets flushed and it can't get through and then as more get flushed they just pile up in there. They are not breaking down so the water has nowhere to go but back up into the house."

Brantner said flushable wipes are a big concern because once they are stuck in the pipes, they block waste from getting through, which can end up being an expensive problem for the borough and homeowner.

"We have something called a Sewer Jet that we use to unclog pipes," he said. "It takes manpower and time that we wouldn't have to use if people would throw these in the trash instead of the toilet."

Lansberry said just because the product is labeled "flushable" doesn't mean it is degradable.

"A lot of things are flushable," he said. That doesn't mean you should flush them."

Feltenberger said feminine hygiene products are another source of concern.

"These things need to be put in the trash, not the toilet," he said. "They can easily clog up the system, and if they do get though and make it to the pumps, that can be an expensive fix."

Brantner said flushing things that do not break down not only costs the borough money, but it can create an expensive problem for an innocent homeowner.

"When these things clog up a sewer line, it can cause a back up in someone else's basement," he said.

Money down the drain

Roaring Spring spends more than $800,000 a year to operate its waste treatment plant, a number that can easily rise when equipment needs replaced from premature wear due to foreign objects.

Sewage operators have to remain increasingly vigilant to minimize the costs associated with people flushing damaging items down the toilet. Short of supervising every flush from every household, there is not much that can be done to stop it.

Lansberry said that the borough includes a note on billing cards asking people not to flush anything but bathroom tissue down the toilet.

"Bathroom tissue and body fluids are the only things people should flush down the toilet," he said.

Rick Boston

A mophead was flushed down a toilet and made its way into Williamsburg's Waste Treatment Plant.

Brantner said that the costs of dealing with foreign objects and non-degradable wipes could eventually lead to rate increases, and wants people to think about where these things end up.

"People flush these things and it's 'out of sight out of mind,'" he said. "They don't realize the problems it causes."

Feltenberger said people need to realize that there are real consequences when these things get into the sewer system.

"Time, money and manpower," he said. "Not to mention possibly having to replace damaged equipment."

Treatment plants work 24 hours a day to ensure the discharge into our streams and rivers is environmentally safe. By having to deal with things that don't belong there, it not only makes the job harder, it makes it more expensive, and that expense will eventually get passed on to the customers.


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