Flushed: The gross truth about what's lurking in the sewer

BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) How much thought do you give to what you flush? Jennifer Costa digs into the gross truth behind "fatbergs" and the damage done by the products many of us use every day. Why are we talking about toilets and showing you the sewer system? As gross as the images may be, it's important to understand how these products and cooking grease are creating a costly problem that's growing underground.

"If it goes down the drain, it comes to us," Matt Dow said.

You name it, Matt Dow, the manager of Burlington Wastewater Facilities, has seen it come in from the sewer line.

"Wipes, condoms, feminine hygiene products, toys," Dow said.

In the video for this story, we're going to show you what happens when people flush things they shouldn't. It happens all the time. And just a warning: it's gross. But it's something every ratepayer should see because we discovered eventually it will cost you.

"People look at the toilet as just a liquid trash removal service," Dow said.

Dow tells us every time you dump a little bacon fat down the sink, you are helping fatbergs form. We got access to an underground camera which reveals city sewer pipes coated in layers of grease.

"If it just keeps happening and keeps happening, it reduces how much flow can go down the sewer," Dow explained.

In London-- an extreme example. This fall, workers had to figure out how to dislodge an enormous fatberg. The rock-solid sewer blockage weighed as much as 11 double-decker buses.

Burlington's 50 miles of sewer lines are nowhere near as large as London's Old Victorian pipes but the potential for a blockage is the same.

Dow takes us to another facility in the city where the effects of congealed fat are more obvious. In the grit chamber, the water is aerated which turns the grease globs into baseballs of blubber. And what we saw is just a month's accumulation.

"There's no good way of getting this out," Dow said. "So we have to actually take a bucket and manually pull it up with a rope, hand over hand."

What makes these fatbergs even worse is when the oil and grease mix with other items people shouldn't flush, like sanitary pads and wipes. Our camera caught a ton of those piling up at the plant.

"A lot of baby wipes will say on the back of them they are not flushable," Dow said. "And then you will have some wipes are called flushable."

But Dow says "flushable" just means the fabric will pass through your pipes to the sewer.

"It doesn't necessarily mean it's a good thing to put in the sewer," he said. "As the pump is trying to turn to push that water, they can wrap around that impeller which can cause it to malfunction."

Think of it this way-- a hand mixer is like the pump station. Toilet paper easily disintegrates with agitation but throw in a wipe and you get a tangled mess.

Dow tells us as wipes are marketed to more and more adults, the problem underground grows. And it's not cheap to fix. We found out it costs at least $250 every time a worker gets called away from regular duty to clear a wipe clog. And in the last five years, the city has spent $16,000 on new technology that's less likely to clog but also less hydraulically efficient, which means higher energy costs.

Matt Dow: We are charged with trying to do the best job we can to clean the water before we return it to the lake.
Reporter Jennifer Costa: Think you can change mentality?
Matt Dow: You know, people have to care. There has to be some sort of buy it on it.

That's just the price tag for wipes. When it comes to grease, the city spends tens of thousands of dollars a year between clearing grease buildup at the plants, fixing grease inundated equipment and clearing plugged sewers. Then there's the cost of disposal and chemicals.

The city is looking into building a system to better deal with this but it comes with a $100,000 price tag.