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Sanitary Board trash basket

This 6-foot-square, 2-foot-deep stainless steel box at the entrance to Charleston’s Patrick Street Pump Station is completely covered with wipes flushed into Charleston Sanitary Board sewer lines.

An unintended consequence of toilet paper hoarding during the COVID-19 era has area wastewater treatment plant workers bracing for possible blockages and overflows.

Because of early runs and now scarcity of the paper product, some have resorted to problematic alternatives. Paper towels, facial tissues — even scraps of clothing — are being flushed into sewer systems designed to accommodate quick-disintegrating toilet paper.

Add those items to the increased volume of disinfectant cleaning sheets for sinks, counters and hands, and so-called “flushable” moistened wipes for babies and adults who are either sensitive or lack toilet paper, and the ingredients for epic clogs and blowouts are at hand.

“For the last 10 years, we’ve seen more and more of what I call ‘convenience wipes’ entering the system,” said Tim Haapala, operations manager for the Charleston Sanitary Board. “They were causing problems long before we heard of the coronavirus. They don’t disintegrate like toilet paper, which is designed to quickly degrade, so we have to spend a lot of time pulling the wipes out of pumps and off screens and hauling them to the landfill.”

“It says on the baby wipe packages that the wipes are flushable,” said Earl Bunks, manager of the Union Public Service District in Cross Lanes. “They’re really not. Some of the low-flow toilets in use now can’t handle them, and the wipes that make it into the system can’t make it through the treatment plants. You don’t see toilet paper at the plant. It’s already dissolved by then.”

“Convenience wipes should be disposed of properly in the trash and never flushed down toilets,” Haapala said. “The wipes clog the pumps at our pumping stations. Plugged pumps do not convey waste water. They have to be removed from service and the wipes manually removed before they can return to service. This costs the Charleston Sanitary Board time and money.”

As the COVID-19 crisis continues, “I expect to see more wipes, particularly the disinfectant variety, flushed into the sewer system,” Haapala said. While that likelihood poses additional headaches for CSB workers, homeowners are even more at risk than the city of having their pipes damaged by buildups of the non-biodegradable products.

Instead of the 8-inch pipes used by the CSB, most customers connect to the city system with 4-inch clay pipes extending from their homes, often accommodating buildups of wipes, grease and solid causing backups into homes that are the responsibility of homeowners to repair.

“During this already stressful time, we want to help our customers avoid blockages that could create costly plumbing emergencies,” said John Pentasuglia, senior operations manager for West Virginia American Water, which operates wastewater treatment plants at Winona and Fayetteville in Fayette County.

Homeowner sewer line blockages can cause wipes, grease and other materials to spill onto the ground or into the home. Blockages in city sewer lines can cause sewer overflows in homes and businesses, and create overflow situations in which wastewater spills into streams, causing environmental issues, Pentasuglia said.

Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelhammer@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-5169 or follow @rsteelhammer on Twitter.