COVID-19 Sewer

Trash caught daily by filters at Palestine’s wastewater facility.  Officials warn the disposal of anything but toilet paper could cause costly and dangerous blockages.

A shortage of toilet paper during the COVID-19 public health emergency might tempt some local residents to use alternative personal hygiene products.

Please don't, city officials pled Friday. To keep wastewater flowing back to treatment, they urged residents not to flush hygiene products, including anti-bacterial and baby wipes.

The list of flushing no-no's includes so-called flushable wipes, which don't dissolve and aren't flushable at all.

“If you use something other than toilet paper, bag it and trash it,” Utilities Director Felipe Garcia told the Herald-Press.  “Fixing the wastewater plant would cost taxpayers a lot of money – much more than paying for an extra trash pickup.”

Once these products invade the sewer system they create “rag balls,” waste collections containing rag-like cloths and wipes that clog sewers and wastewater treatment equipment.

 “We’ve always had a problem with rags, and rag balls in the system,” Wastewater Plant Supervisor Ben Day told the Herald-Press. “So far, the problem hasn't worsened here, but bigger cities are beginning to report real problems.”

Industry professionals nationwide say a combination of hyper-vigilance and a toilet paper shortage has led to more people flushing cleaning wipes, some claiming to be “flushable,” into the sewer system. 

“Flushable wipes,” Day said, are deceptively marketed: Most aren’t flushable.

“They’re better than they used to be,” he said.  “But they still don’t dissolve like toilet paper does.  I think they should be illegal.”

A Consumer Reports test earlier this year showed flushable wipes did not break down, even after 10 minutes in a blender.  Two brands, “Equate,” and “Charmin,” did not dissolve, even after being submerged for 24 hours.

An additional 90-gallon polycart can is available from trash collection contractor Waste Connections for $5 – the city’s cost.  Those interested in an extra polycart should call (903) 723-4670.

In addition to costing taxpayer dollars, sewage clogs pose risks for city workers.

“Viruses thrive in wastewater,” Garcia said.  “Any time our crew has to climb down 30 feet in a pump station to clear a clog, their health is at risk.  Now, it’s even worse.”

With only six employees, Day said one worker contracting COVID-19 could halt operations.

“If one person is diagnosed, everyone they were in contact with is at risk,” he said.  “With six people who often work in close quarters, everyone could be quarantined.

“We’re essential. We work for the residents of Palestine, and will continue to do our jobs, every day.”

Recommended for you