Doug Clark, director of the Gardiner Wastewater Treatment Plant, explains Thursday how people should flush only toilet paper down the toilet. Speaking at the Maine Avenue pump station in Gardiner, Ckark said the material visible inside the pipe is what was screened from the sewage. It was then dried and compressed so it can be disposed of at the Hatch Hill landfill in Augusta.

Not everyone was lucky enough to have stocked up on toilet paper before concerns about the coronavirus prompted panic buying that has emptied store shelves across central Maine.

Now wastewater treatment plant operators are warning people not to flush any toilet paper substitutes.

“You should not flush anything but toilet paper,” Doug Clark, director of the Gardiner Wastewater Treatment Plant, said Thursday.

Even in the best of times, wastewater treatment plant operators urge people not to flush baby wipes and other wipes — even if they advertise themselves as flushable — or any other manufactured product.

Those items can clog sewer pipes from homes to sewer mains under the streets and sewer mains leading to wastewater treatment plants.

In the week since the first presumptive positive test for the highly contagious coronavirus was announced, people across central Maine have emptied store shelves of toilet paper, paper towels, cleaning products, meat, frozen vegetables, pasta, and other essentials.

And even as delivery trucks have brought in more of everything, people have snapped up all of that, too, leaving many other to go without.

“People don’t care much about flushing other stuff unless it directly impacts them,” Brian Tarbuck, general manager of the Greater Augusta Utility District, said Thursday.

“Mostly non-toilet paper products gum up the works of the pumps downstream, and our maintenance personnel have to respond and physically pull these products out of pumps by hand. It’s a gruesome job.”

The material inside the pipe was screened from the sewage Thursday at the Maine Avenue pump station in Gardiner. It was then dried and compressed so it can be disposed of at the Hatch Hill landfill in Augusta.

In Gardiner, Clark said two blockages have been discovered, but he was not certain how they came about. He said he was reasonably sure a clog at the wastewater treatment plant was caused by flushing toilet paper substitutes. He was not sure about the other blockage, which occurred in the sewer system.

In Augusta, Tarbuck said his staff had not responded to an inordinate number of blockages — yet.

Both say they hope to keep blockages to a minimum.

Tarbuck said GAUD is operating these days with a lean staff to minimize employees’ possible exposure to the coronavirus.

“We worry about what could happen if our workforce becomes sick, as there aren’t a lot of people willing to pull wipes out of pumps by hand,” Tarbuck said. “Just so gross.”

In Gardiner, Clark said his full crew of four is working, and all of them have been cross-trained on tasks, including lab work and maintenance. They are able to self-quarantine at the plant in the event the virus infection is widespread.

The plant can be run by just two, but it is not just the plant they supervise. Gardiner has 17 pump stations and miles of sewer lines.

“If we’re shorthanded, we don’t want problems out in the pump stations or in the sewer lines,” Clark said.

The other consequences of blockages are financial.

Clark said the labor cost in clearing a blockage from service lines that connects homes to the sewer mains start at about $200 for the first hour and go up from there. After that, the hourly rate starts at $100. Replacing the service lines can cost thousands of dollars.

And that is if the utilities have the staff to respond.

If a blockage occurs in a sewer main and can be traced back to a homeowner, Clark said Gardiner’s sewer ordinance allows the department to seek the costs for clearing it from the homeowner.

In Augusta, a similar provision exists.

“If we know that a given property has caused a blockage in the publicly owned sewer pipe, we could seek financial relief from them,” Tarbuck said. “Put simply, it’s not fair for all of the ratepayers to have to pay for the actions of a single ratepayer.”

Clark recommended that if anything other than toilet paper is used, its disposal should be with the normal household trash.


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