Thursday, March 19, 2015

It's Time to Talk About the Toilet.


Nobody really ever wants to talk about sewer. Let’s face it, there are lots of more interesting things to talk about. Fire trucks are interesting. Economic development is interesting. But sewer? All we want is for the sewer to work the way it is supposed to, but we don’t necessarily want to talk about it.

However, few things are more important than a properly functioning sewer system. The sewer system is a critical component of our public health system. It whisks waste away with a simple flush, preventing the development and spread of disease throughout the city. It takes water tainted by chemicals in the manufacturing process or that dirty dishwater in you sink away to be treated, made safe for the environment, and released back into a river or stream.

With over 60 miles of sewer pipe and several pump stations, the City of Clinton’s sewer system is a complicated maze designed to take waste away from your home, businesses, stores, restaurants, and factories efficiently day in and day out.

However, we are not as efficient as we used to be. After nearly 100 years in the ground, many of sewer lines are old, in need of repair, and some are failing. It’s the failing that led to several Sanitary Sewer Overflows over the past three years. A Sanitary Sewer Overflow, or SSO, is very simply an incident which occurs when the sewer in the pipe escapes and overflows into the environment. Every time a SSO occurs, the city has to take steps to notify the public, clean up the impacted area, and then notifies the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control that the incident occurred. The city had five SSO incidents in 2012, and immediately began to take steps to try to improve the sewer system. Although the number of SSO incidents has decreased over time, the number of SSO incidents triggered a South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control review which resulted in a consent order between the City of Clinton and the State of South Carolina.

The consent order is a voluntary agreement entered into by both the State of South Carolina and the City of Clinton. The consent order has several requirements, but the first requirement is to have an independent review of the sewer system and create a long range plan for rehabilitating the system so that it operates efficiently. The audit will result in a comprehensive maintenance, operations, and management plan that we will use over the next several years to bring our decades old sewer system up to the modern standards that federal and state regulators expect in a modern sewer system.

Over the next few months, you will hear a lot about our sewer system, and there will be many discussions about the best way to improve the system and what needs to be done. Some of the conversations will have to do with two main problems in our sewer system: FOG and I&I.

FOG stands for fats, oils, and grease. Fats, oils, and grease in the sewer system can congeal against the walls of a sewer pipe, and build up over time until the pipe is blocked, resulting in a sewer overflow. When you pour grease from cooking into your sink’s drain, or when you rely on your sink’s disposal to handle greasy food waster rather than scraping it into your garbage can, grease can get into the system and contribute to forming a blockage. How serious can it be? In August of 2013, sewer workers in London, England responded to a blocked sewer system to find a mass of fats and grease the size of a city bus blocking the sewer system.

I&I stands for inflow and infiltration. Inflow and infiltration occurs when water gets into the sewer system from outside sources. This water can overwhelm the sewer system and result in overflows. Groundwater can seep into the sewer pipe through underground cracks in the pipes. Storm sewers and sanitary sewer may have cross connections that need to be separated. Residences might have piped their gutters into the sewer, which was once an acceptable practice but now contributes the problems associated with inflow and infiltration. Even the top of a sewer clean out in your yard sheared off by a lawn mower can create a hole that allows rainwater in and can contribute to the I&I problem.

So what can you do to help us improve the city sewer system? First, don’t pour grease down the drain. Pour it into an old can, or pour it into a plastic bag, and toss it in the trash. Second, if the top of your cleanout is broken, fix it, and if you have connected your gutters to your sewer system, disconnect your gutters form the sewer. Finally, stay informed. Your city is going to have to make several tough decisions over the next year in regards to the sewer system, and you as an owner of the system need to be part of those decisions. Visit the city website frequently for new information regarding the sewer consent order and its impact on you.