Miami-Dade County

Grease, baby wipes and diapers: Here’s how you’re causing a $3.4 million problem

After frying tostones or chicharrones, you might want to rethink pouring their grease down the kitchen drain. And after changing that diaper, you’re better off throwing those wipes in the trash — not down the toilet.

We pour things down the drain or flush them down the toilet every day without a thought about where they end up.

But after a while, that carelessness has turned into a problem — a $3.4 million-a-year problem.

Every month, the Miami-Dade Water & Sewer Department pulls out 300 tons of wipes from its wastewater pump stations and treatment plants. Clearing and repairing clogged sewer lines and pumps cost thousands of dollars. The county is calling on its nearly 2.3 million consumers not to treat their drains and toilets like trash cans and only flush the three P’s: pee, poop and (toilet) paper.

Wipes — wet wipes, Clorox wipes, baby wipes, even “flushable” wipes — don’t break up in water like toilet paper or human waste. Hot grease poured down kitchen drains hardens and can clog pipes. When oil, grease and fat clump together with wipes, rags and other materials in water pumps — which pump sewage to treatment plants — the combination can exhaust the pumps and cause raw sewage to pour onto the streets and into waterways.

Randy Erion, a mechanic who has worked at the water and sewer department for 18 years, remembers cleaning pump stations or treating clogs a couple of times a year early in his career. Now, pumps might clog and break down every two to three days, costing $225,000 a month to clean, according to Jennifer Messemer-Skold, a spokeswoman for county water and sewer.

County crews clean two or three pump stations a day. There are more than 1,000 pump stations in the sewage system. The pump stations most impacted by clogs are located in Kendall, North Miami, Opa-locka, North Miami Beach, Miami Gardens and Aventura, the county says.

If a pump is broken, the county will replace it on the spot without a change to those in the neighborhood.

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Randy Erion, plant mechanic, left, and Roberto Diaz, maintenance mechanic, inspect Pump Station 811 in Kendall on Aug. 1, 2019. The Miami-Dade Water and Sewer Department pulls out 300 tons of wipes — the equivalent of 50 male African elephants — from its wastewater pump stations and treatment plants each month. Carl Juste cjuste@miamiherald.com

But costs don’t fall only on the county’s shoulders.

“Out of sight is not out of mind,” said Messemer-Skold.

If the pipes under a home or business clog, it can cost the owner between $130 and $170 for a plumber in Miami to fix the problem, according to promatcher.com.

If a pipeline in the main Miami-Dade system gets backed up or a pump station breaks down, water rates in the area can increase. Sewage and water fees are the sole revenue source for the county’s $895 million water and sewer budget.

“It costs more money to run the pumps because of the electricity that’s needed and the manpower,” said Erion. Money remains a challenge for the department, which lists nearly $2 million in unfunded operational needs tied to its sewer system.

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Jose Rodriguez, left, Randy Erion, plant mechanic, and Roberto Diaz, maintenance mechanic, right, use a Vac-Can truck to clean Pump Station 811 in Kendall on Aug. 1, 2019. The Miami-Dade Water and Sewer Department pulls out 300 tons of wipes from its wastewater pump stations and treatment plants each month. Carl Juste cjuste@miamiherald.com

The county is undergoing a 15-20 year program to upgrade its pipes, pump stations and water and wastewater treatment plants as part of a 2014 lawsuit settlement with the EPA.

The EPA sued Miami-Dade in 2012 over the county’s failing sewer system, which it said violated the Clean Water Act.

Miami-Dade’s sewer system spilled about 50 million gallons of human waste in the four years before the 2012 litigation, according to the EPA.

On Sunday, a 48-inch water pipe burst near 2500 NE 163rd St., resulting in millions of gallons of untreated sewage flowing into Biscayne Bay. The county said the pipe most likely won’t be fixed on a temporary basis until Friday at the earliest.

The spill is affecting residents in North Miami, North Miami Beach, Aventura, Bal Harbour and Sunny Isles Beach. The county is asking people in those cities to cut down on showers, laundry and other water uses until the problem is fixed.

On Feb. 1, more than 700,000 gallons of sewage from pipes serving more than 20,000 people poured out of a station at 350 Sunny Isles Beach Blvd. and into a storm drain that connects to Biscayne Bay, causing a public health scare. The EPA flagged the station in 2014 for needing repairs. A struggle to replace parts and a stalled effort to bring in an emergency pump preceded the spill.

While the county works to upgrade the system, the water and sewer department said the cost and manpower to clean up clogged pipes and stations are a burden.

“We could be using staff to proactively work on our system, but instead they’re cleaning up clogs,” Messemer-Skold said. “It’s like that’s all they do.”

But this isn’t only a Miami-Dade problem.

Broward’s Water and Wastewater Services removes more than 7,000 tons of what they call “foreign” material from the waste stream each year.

The National Association of Clean Water Agencies, which represents 300 wastewater agencies across the country, said it’s been hearing complaints about wipes from sewer systems for about the past four years, according to a report from The Associated Press.

Wipes aren’t the only material clogging the county’s sewer system. Dental floss, diapers and sanitary napkins are among the county’s “Dirty Dozen” list of items not to flush.

Messemer-Skold said the increase could be attributed to a rise in the county’s population and use of wipes over the years.

Wipes are a $6 billion-a-year industry, with sales increasing nearly 5 percent a year since 2007 and expected to grow at a rate of 6 percent annually for the next five years, according to the AP report.

These products are made for the public’s convenience, but their impact on the sewage system is an inconvenience for both the county and the public, Messemer-Skold said. She said it doesn’t have to be this way.

“Everyone has a role to play in keeping the system clean,” Messemer-Skold said.

Top 10 pump stations most impacted by clogs

Pump station 559, Kendall, Southwest 87th Street and 95th Avenue

Pump station 301, Sunny Isles Beach near Sunny Isles Boulevard and Collins Avenue

Pump station 54, Opa-locka, Northwest 17th Avenue and 155th Street

Pump station 315, North Miami Beach, 194th Street and Collins Avenue

Pump station 69, Miami, Northwest 22nd Avenue and 14th Street

Pump station 348, Hialeah, East 56th Street and Eighth Avenue

Pump station 456, Miami Gardens, Northwest 183rd Street and 17th Avenue

Pump station 421, Miami Gardens, Northwest 199th Street and Second Avenue

Pump station 480, Aventura, Northeast 31st Avenue and 192nd Street

Pump station 10, Miami, Northwest 11th Street and 22nd Avenue

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