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Students’ PSA helped this year, but problem persists
Over a year after first alerting city councilors that sewer lines and pumps were being clogged with non-soluble waste, Cotulla utilities supervisor David Wright said this week that there has been little improvement in the condition that is costing taxpayers thousands of dollars in repairs.
The city of Cotulla issued public advisories in 2021 and this year, asking residents and businesses to stop flushing non-soluble wipes, towels, fabrics and plastics down toilets, as the material damages sewer lift station and wastewater treatment plant pumps.
In a further effort to promote community awareness of the issue, science students at Cotulla High School created a public service announcement video earlier this year, asking that wipes and other non-solubles not be flushed.
While the common term used in city council meetings has been ‘baby wipes’ in reference to many of the non-soluble materials in the sewer lines, Wright said a wide range of products falls into the same category.
The waste includes paper towels, shop towels, adult toilet wipes, plastic food wrappers, plastic bags, washcloths, and more.
Wright gave an interview on the issue this week after water utility department head Jimmy Oranday reported to councilors at their September meeting that municipal facilities are still being fouled by non-soluble waste.
“We are also finding beer cans, syringes, condoms, hygiene products, toys and other things that just should not be flushed down toilets,” Wright said. “Basically, if you can think of anything that people don’t want other people to see, that’s what you’ll find in the sewers. People flush these things.”
The utilities supervisor also said he believes some local businesses have not been vigilant in preventing non-solubles from being flushed, including large quantities of paper towels.
“Some businesses in town have shower facilities for long-distance travelers, and we believe those customers who don’t have bath towels are using paper towels to dry themselves,” Wright said. “We think they’re flushing them down the toilets instead of putting them in wastebaskets.
“Regular toilet paper disintegrates before it reaches the pumps,” Wright said. “It’s all these other materials that don’t. The super-strength paper towels, for example, have a fabric content that won’t break down in the lines. It’s not soluble.”
When combined with grease, oils, chemicals, fatty waste, food solids and other trash that likewise should not go down toilets, Wright said, the non-solubles have created a thick sludge that has damaged almost all of the city’s wastewater pumps over the past year.
City Hall has confirmed that crews have had to open valves and access lift stations every week in order to pull the clogged waste out of the lines by hand in an ongoing effort to prevent pumps from overheating and failing.
“We are having to go to the wastewater treatment plant every day and pull these clogs out ourselves,” Wright said. “We can fill an eight-yard trash container in about a week.
“We have to shovel it by hand, out of the aeration basins, the clarification units, the pumps,” he added. “It’s a job that can only be done by hand.”
Costs to the taxpayer, Wright estimated, have topped $80,000 per year in contracted vacuum services and other maintenance work alone, while hours of expended manpower from the city have stretched the utilities departments thin.
Although the city has a vacuum pump-equipped trailer to help clear some sewer lines, the machinery is inadequate for handling clogged lines at deep levels. Two of the city’s wastewater lift stations, he said, are at 35 feet below ground.
“Debris gathers at the pump, surrounds it, and reduces the water flow,” Wright said. “This causes the pumps to overheat. Their coils are damaged, and we have to replace them.”
The city of Cotulla has an ordinance making it illegal to discharge fats, oils, grease and non-solubles into the sewer system, and violations are subject to citation and prosecution in municipal court. Wright acknowledged, however, that it may be virtually impossible for a code enforcement officer to pinpoint a culprit.
“It’s so prevalent, it’s just way too much,” he said. “We don’t have the staff to enforce this.
“We want people to understand that there are things that just should not go down the toilet,” the utilities supervisor said. “Just because the label on a product says it’s flushable, that doesn’t mean it’s soluble.
“On behalf of all of us here at City Hall, I have to say I’m disappointed,” Wright said. “We issued advisories, and the students made a PSA, but none of it has had much effect.
“There was a slight improvement in the situation right after the students’ video came out, but I’m afraid it was short-lived and we are back to the same situation as before,” he added. “If only people understood what it’s costing, and what our crew members have to do, then perhaps they would think twice about flushing all this material down the toilet.”