'Phantom flusher' eludes officials in $16,000 toilet inquiry
Who's flushing paper towels down the toilet in Wood Village?
Officials say a cloaked clogger has caused $16,000 in damage to a city sewage pump and ignored repeated pleas to stop flushing. A months-long search for a suspect has tasked workers with monitoring manholes, knocking door-to-door and even snaking a camera down the pipe.
"This isn't innocent or guilty. There's a cost that's being incurred here — a real cost," City Manager Bill Peterson told the Wood Village City Council in February. "Somebody has to pay."
The Public Works department has tracked the discharge to a three-building business park off Shea Lane, a dead-end area tucked between Halsey Street and Interstate 84. But all 27 tenants use the same feeder lines that flow to the Shea lift station, making it impossible so far to identify the clogger culprit.
Scott Sloan, who heads the department, says the problem is that paper towels don't dissolve, but instead clump up near the flapper valves. The emergency calls for service occur every 10 days or so, he said, each one tallying at least $900 in overtime and unscheduled maintenance.
As a stop-gap, workers have installed a new grate and hung spare snow chains in the pipe in the hope of stymying the sewage scofflaw, all to no avail. Signs have been posted at the site in English and Spanish.
"It's totally unthinkable that anybody could flush down the toilet what they carry out in a garbage can," said Dr. Eugene Davis, who owns the business park at 24023 N.E. Shea Lane. "Save some of those towels for me. I want to look at them."
Davis says he's spoken to each of his tenants about the issue, but no one will admit to flushing the paper towels.
Officials hauled in bags of the wadded-up white stuff during a wide-ranging toilet inquiry, which dominated the City Council meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 13.
City Councilors — not afraid of a little potty humor — joked that the evidence should be labeled exhibit No. 1, or maybe No. 2.
No one's laughing about the cash-strapped city's need to recoup the maintenance costs, which could be extracted from every user in the city or just those in the business park. Business owners on Shea Lane say making them pay isn't fair.
"That's dirty polls in my eyes. Why should I have to pay for something when I'm not at fault," asked Doug Hancock, who's operated automotive company NW Equipment Specialists at the business park for nine years.
Hancock says the city should investigate the few tenants who don't pay for weekly garbage pick-up service.
"(We could) just cap up the toilets," he noted.
Davis, the property owner, said it's suspicious that the problems started after the city replaced the old Shea Lane pump in 2014 for about $89,000. He's offered to build a septic tank on his property and disconnect the private sewer line if problems continue.
City officials claim the pump works perfectly as long as prohibited materials are kept out of the sewer line. The council has not yet decided how to pay for the pump repairs, but say it's only a matter of time until the phantom flusher strikes again.
"We're going to find out who did it," vowed City Manager Peterson.