Fighting fatbergs is a dirty – but avoidable – job

By Jennifer Nations, Water Resource Coordinator

The iconic line from the movie “Titanic” is “fatberg, right ahead!”

Wait, what?

Sorry, the line was actually about an iceberg. But “fatbergs” are real and can put a fat hole in a utility’s maintenance and operations budget, not to mention causing significant impacts to water quality and the environment from sewer overflows.

Fats, oils, and grease (FOG) – along with flushable and non-flushable rags and wipes – merge in our sewers to form solid, immovable blockages known in our business as fatbergs. They are worse in the winter months when cooler temperatures make it easier for the FOG to solidify.

Recently in London, it took nine weeks to dislodge a fatberg measuring 800 feet long and weighing 130 tons. For comparison, 130 tons is equivalent to 10 London double-decker buses.

Water Production Operator Jared Lapaglia surveys a mass of non-flushables cleared from a pump.

Who drew the short straw?

While College Station hasn’t had fatbergs that colossal, we aren’t immune to problems caused by FOG and wipes. Our wastewater treatment plants use ultraviolet light to disinfect the treated wastewater, and when a big grease blob sticks to the UV light, the light can’t do its job. Courageous operators must manually remove balls of grease, wads of wipes, paper towels – we’ve even found underwear – to keep our equipment from being damaged.

I’m not sure, but our brave operators probably draw straws to see who handles that dirty job!

Fatbergs can be costly

FOG and trash in the sewer system can also lead to increases in your wastewater rates. For the Lick Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant expansion, a $150,000 preliminary screening station was added to the design to remove such things as wipes, rags, hygiene products of the cotton and plastic variety, and trash.

Manually removing the grease at our wastewater plants costs College Station an average of $600 each week. We traced a recent sewer overflow to grease and paper towels coming from a fast food restaurant, which had to close for five hours while we made repairs.

Ways to trim fatbergs down to size

  1. Scrape food scraps into the garbage and let grease solidify in pans first before placing it in the trash. Pour oil and grease into a can. Once it has hardened, you can put the sealed container in regular trash.
  2. Avoid placing paper products – even those marked as flushable – down the drain or in the toilet. #NoWipesinPipes
  3. You can help protect your sewer system by remembering to only flush the 3 P’s – pee, poop, and toilet paper.

Water Services – especially our valiant wastewater operators – appreciate your help in reducing our fatberg problem. If you have any questions, contact me at jnations@cstx.gov.

 


About the Blogger

Jennifer Nations has been the City of College Station’s water resource coordinator since 1999 after two years as BVSWMA’s environmental compliance officer. She’s also chair of the Water Conservation and Reuse Division for the Texas Section of the American Water Works Association. A native of Fremont, Calif., Jennifer earned a bachelor’s degree in environmental & resource science from UC-Davis in 1995 and a master’s degree in water management & hydrologic science from Texas A&M in 2016.


 

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