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Residents, businesses, detention center must stop flushing non-soluble waste, engineers say
Despite repeated requests this year by city staff that area residents not flush baby wipes and other cloths down their toilets, the amount of non-soluble material in Cotulla’s sewers remains a labor-intensive problem.
City Hall has again issued a verbal request to the general public not to put baby wipes, cloth and plastic wrappers down toilets.
Addressing councilors at their December meeting, city water utilities engineer Jimmy Oranday said workers are spending hours each week unclogging fixtures at sewer lift stations and pumps because of the amount of baby wipes being pushed through the pipes.
According to both Oranday and utilities engineer David Wright, many local residents continue flushing wipes, cloth-like rags and non-soluble tissues after having been asked to stop doing so.
While a principal culprit in the sewer-clogging issue may be the state prison beside FM 624 on the southeastern outskirts of town, Oranday said, local citizens are not being let off the hook.
“We are having to call a clean-out service several times a year,” Oranday told the council, “and our workers are having to unblock pumps that have been clogged with baby wipes, sometimes every week.”
Oranday and Wright said they have determined all of the city’s sewer lines contain baby wipes and that the problem is not caused entirely by malefactors at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Cotulla Unit, where other non-soluble items have also been pushed into the sewer system.
In addition to baby wipes, the engineers indicated in earlier interviews this year, Cotulla’s sewer system routinely contains volumes of non-flushable items ranging from syringes to clothing, plastic wrapping, toys, bags, and pieces of wood.
Oranday said workers have recently noted an increase in the number of food wrappers in the sewer system, including the packaging for Ramen noodles, adding that these may also have been flushed down toilets at the detention center.
Restaurants and businesses failing to install grease traps and other screens on their wastewater lines have been responsible for causing blockages that require professional clean-out service, Oranday said.
The wastewater utility supervisor added that bar screens have been ordered for the city’s wastewater treatment plant but told councilors that he believes the volume of baby wipes still being flushed down toilets must be addressed.
Councilor Reynaldo Garcia, employed as a teacher at Cotulla ISD, said again this month that he hopes to carry the ‘no baby wipes’ message to his students in a civic educational unit that will help them understand the workings of the municipal utilities system and spread the message to families that the wipes are non-soluble, that they should not be flushed, and that they cause extensive damage to the wastewater system.
Oranday said on Thursday that families may be misled by labeling on packages of baby wipes and similar toilet cloths that indicate they can be flushed into the sewers.
“They just don’t dissolve,” the engineer said. “The label might say the wipes are flushable, but they’re not.”
“Toilet paper does dissolve, by the time it reaches the treatment plant,” Wright said. “These baby wipes do not. The majority of our residential sewer line blockages are caused by baby wipes. It’s never-ending. We are having thirty to fifty sewer back-ups monthly.”
“We asked the nursing home and the prison to stop flushing these wipes,” City Administrator Larry Dovalina said, “but they’re still doing it.”
Oranday offered to share photographs of the fouled pump equipment that crew members have found at lift stations, adding that pictures taken only a few days after a complete clean-out will show equipment clogged again.
“We pull the pump, and sure enough it’s nothing but baby wipes on there,” Oranday said. “It’s like mop heads, all bunched around the pump.”
Councilors did not take action on the issue this month, as the topic had been raised only in the form of a departmental update. Whether City Hall will disseminate informational flyers or otherwise issue reminders that wipes and other non-solubles should not be flushed down toilets remains to be decided by a council directive.