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Oregon sewer-treatment providers warn so-called 'flushable' disinfectant towels could clog up systems

As people attempt to keep surfaces clean, Oregon officials are reminding citizens that sanitizing wipes are trash and should be kept out of toilets in order to prevent sewer systems from bogging down.

FILE PHOTO COURTESY: WES - Kevin Rotrock, a sanitary sewer and stormwater technician for Clackamas Water Environment Services, cleans out a pile of wipes that clogged the equipment at a local pump station. Sewer-treatment agency officials are worried that sewer overflows at wastewater treatment facilities could create additional public health risks during the COVID-19 pandemic. While they recognize that these wipes can help kill the novel coronavirus, officials are ramping up effort to encourage people to throw away used wipes in trash cans rather than place disinfection products into our water system through toilets.

Al Garcia, a regional sewage pretreatment coordinator for the Environmental Protection Agency, wrote that many municipalities in Rocky Mountain states have experienced overflows because of the increased use and flushing of wipes, or a loss of nitrification likely from increased toxicity loading due to the disinfectants in the wipes. Garcia's message has been circulating through the Association of Clean Water Agencies, and Oregon officials are hoping to get ahead of the problem through public outreach.

In Clackamas County, Oak Lodge Water Services Board President Kevin Williams is reminding members of the public that sanitizing wipes might go down the drain, but the product does not disintegrate.

"Flushables aren't flushable, no matter what the label on the package states," Williams said.

Last year, Oak Lodge crews performed a large "fatberg" removal project in the sewage-treatment facility's influent wet wells. They had to drain the wells one at a time, enter the wells (OSHA confined space entry), cut up the large fatbergs with chainsaws and remove the pieces for disposal.

On March 17, the district declared a state of emergency through April 17 due to the current public health emergency. During this time, the board is authorizing the district's manager to divert funds and resources appropriated for other purposes to meet immediate needs.

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