Oregonians need a bit more potty training, according to state lawmakers.
After years of angst — and unnecessary costs — for local governments, Oregon became the second state in the nation this year to require "do not flush" labels on the disinfectant, personal care, make-up and baby wipes commonly sold in the bathroom aisle.
"There's no such thing as a flushable wipe," says Clean Water Services chief of staff Mark Jockers, "even the ones that say they're flushable."
The Washington County utility purifies more than 65 million gallons of wastewater a day for over 610,000 customers — and the agency's wipe woes have only intensified since March 2020, when stay-home orders and toilet paper shortages triggered a "significant" jump in the pre-moistened towelettes clogging sewer lines.
The wipes required a 40% workload increase for their pump station operators — and it's a messy business.
"We've had to increase the frequency of inspections, and pump down the water levels in our wet well tank in order to break up mats of wipes, vacuum out the wet well tanks when they get really bad so the wipes don't clog our pumps and otherwise remove wipes by pulling pumps and opening check valves," said Clean Water spokeswoman Julie Cortez.
It's a problem across the metro area:
• Water Environment Services, which serves more than 190,000 people in Clackamas County, estimates that clearing snags, blockages and ropes of wipes costs the agency $30,000 to $40,000 a year in extra operating expenses.
• Beaverton officials say improperly disposed wipes recently triggered a wastewater overflow that cost $10,000 to clear and cleanse the affected area. "We also have had to flush lines more frequently because of the threat of plugged pipes due to wipes and grease," spokeswoman Dianna Ballash said.
• The Hillsboro Public Works Department says a gunky combo of wipes and grease accounts for as much as 30% of their equipment and labor costs. "These in turn can cause back-ups, and overflows; especially in low flow lines where there may be less water to move product," said spokeswoman Krista Snell.
• The Portland Bureau of Environmental Services doesn't specifically track wipes-related costs, but says they typically crop up near institutional uses like long-term care facilities.
While Washington State first enacted a labeling law, similar legislation is under consideration in California, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts and Minnesota, as well as at the federal level. The National Association of Clean Water Agencies calculates that the chemical wipes cost wastewater utilities a combined $440 million per year countrywide.
"The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated an already growing problem," said Susie Smith, executive director of the Oregon Association of Clean Water Agencies. "We are grateful to the cities, agencies and legislators who championed this common-sense requirement."
Oregon House Bill 2344, signed into law by Gov. Kate Brown in June, requires prominent display of the warning labels and authorizes fines of $2,000, $5,000 or $10,000 for those who break the rules.
The bill was primarily sponsored by Democrats, including Reps. Karin Power of Milwaukie and Jeff Reardon of Happy Valley and Sen. Michael Dembrow of Portland. Opposition came from five Republicans and one Independent in separate House and Senate votes.
Follow me on Twitter
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.