Wipes, masks and other waste flushing taxpayer dollars down the drain

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FRANKLIN, Ind – Franklin city officials are asking residents to think before they flush their toilets in an effort to slow a problem that has already cost thousand of dollars and will soon cost millions.

“Please don’t flush anything that’s not biodegradable,” said Franklin Wastewater Superintendent Sally Brown.

Since the summer of 2020, Brown says workers at the city’s wastewater treatment facility have been dealing with a dramatic increase in cleaning wipes, paper towels, disposable masks and other things that shouldn’t be flushed down toilets. 

Over the course of the coronavirus pandemic, the extra debris has been clogging up systems at the treatment plant and forcing expensive repairs on water pumps.

“The guys had to spend so much time cleaning those wipes off of pumps, off of everything around the plant,” Brown said.  “When they repair them and they take them apart, they get a big glob of these wipes and string and things that don’t biodegrade.”

Brown says each repair costs between $12,000 and $27,000 and four of the plants are currently out for repairs.  She says she has already spent her entire maintenance budget for 2021, more than $80,000.  Franklin’s Board of Public Works recently added another $175,000 to the department’s budget to make it through the rest of the year.

“I would say yeah, we’re looking at thousands of dollars going down the toilet whenever you have a pump that goes bad just because we put things down the toilet that shouldn’t be going there,” said Franklin Mayor Steve Barnett.

“Toilet paper is designed to dissolve, wipes are not,” said Indiana Office of Utility Consumer Counselor spokesperson, Anthony Swinger.  “Whether you’re talking about cleaning wipes or baby wipes, they’re convenient, they’re fine to use, but just put them in the trash when you’re done.  They’re not meant to go through the sewage system.”

Swinger said problems like this at sewage treatment plants are not limited to Franklin.

“It’s a situation that we’ve seen throughout the country, and it has gotten worse during the pandemic for pretty obvious reasons,” Swinger said.

Rather than continue spending thousands on repeat repairs, Franklin city officials are now planning to pay for a $2.5 million dollar screening facility designed to filter extra debris from water before it reaches the pumps at the plant. 

The new system would be housed in a separate building and use a perforated screen to catch things like wipes, masks and other things before they reach the treatment facility.  

Mayor Barnett plans to ask the city council to use $1 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding, and $1.5 million from a fund set aside for future wastewater projects. 

The hope is to avoid raising sewer rates for residents. However, it could take two years for the new screening system to be built. 

In the meantime, city officials are asking residents to do their part and avoid flushing things that shouldn’t go into the sewer system.

“Hopefully, we can get some help from our citizens,” Barnett said.  “Because it will be a couple years before this is done and we will still have to keep fixing pumps.”

Even so-called “flushable” wipes should go in the trash instead of down the toilet, Brown said.  Like paper towels, they won’t biodegrade before reaching the sewage facility.

“People just don’t know, they don’t understand our business,” Brown said.  “So they don’t understand that flushable doesn’t necessarily mean biodegradable.”

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