Too many 'flushable' wipes in pipes

4:09 PM, Jul 31, 2013   |    comments
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Pete Jones, a wastewater plant operator for Ocean City, removes large debris at a pump station in North Ocean City as Jim Parsons, chief deputy director of Public Works, holds a flushable wipe. / DelmarvaNow, Laura Emmons

OCEAN CITY, Md. (DelmarvaNow) - There's one thoroughly modern convenience that's causing headaches for the people who run Ocean City's sewer system: the so-called flushable wipe.

And the problem goes beyond Ocean City. 

The Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC) is also experiencing the same issue, according to a tweet by Jim Neustadt, the Communications Director at WSSC.

Like a grown-up version of soothing baby wipes, these toilet paper accoutrements are advertised as safe for toilets. But problems can mount when they get into the rest of the sewer system.

Wipes mimic flushable toilet paper, "but then when it gets in there, it doesn't act like it," said Jim Parsons, chief deputy director for Ocean City's Public Works Department.­

Toilet paper dissolves fully in water after only a few minutes. Some brands of wipes, however, are resilient and don't break down, even after being saturated for hours. Parsons said the problem in Ocean City has grown exponentially in the last three years.

"The wastewater systems that we're all so dependent on, they have been designed, historically, to treat things that are very readily degradable," he said. "Anything that doesn't readily degrade going down the toilet is bad news for us. ... They create havoc out there in the collections system."

The collections system is the series of pipes leading from residences and businesses that brings the waste stream to the town's wastewater treatment facility.­

There are 13 pumping stations in Ocean City proper, nine of which are under Ocean City's control. There also are four sewer pumping stations located in West Ocean City that feed into the 65th Street wastewater treatment plant in Ocean City. Peak daily flow during the summer can be 10-12 million gallons of wastewater; in the winter, that drops to about 3 million gallons a day.

As soon as the sewage flow gets to the sewage plant's "head works," or entry point, large mechanical screens will catch accidentally-flushed items like coins, wedding rings and wristwatches as a means of protecting the system.


But the collections system of pumping stations throughout Ocean City weren't designed to do that. If something plugs the pumps before they reach the head works, that could result in residential sewage backups or a sewer overflow into the environment.

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