As the lunch hour faded on a recent workday, Ed Hairfield and his crew roared into the parking lot of a Panda Express.
They stood a few feet from the Hyattsville restaurant’s door, where mouth-watering aromas drifted out each time it opened. But the crew of one of the Washington area’s largest sanitary systems could not care less about the menu’s SweetFire Chicken Breast. They only cared about the lard.
Every day, up to five times a day, Hairfield’s six-man Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission crew pops open a hatch next to a store or restaurant to study a nasty sight: lumpy grease buildup from cooked animal and vegetable fat.
It’s the same stuff that makes flabby bellies jiggle and roll, that clogs arteries and stops hearts, and the crews are deployed to keep it from doing the same to WSSC’s network of sewer pipes. This year and last, inspectors issued 31 citations to establishments in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties for failing to properly maintain pricey interceptors that stop thick kitchen grease from backing up pipes — pizza joints, Chinese restaurants, cafes and giant franchises, as well as Lakeforest Mall in Gaithersburg.
But the blame doesn’t fall solely on restaurants. Grease is poured down kitchen drains by hundreds of thousands of household cooks in the region, and by hundreds of millions of people nationwide. Coagulated fat from fried bacon, steaks, chicken, burgers and potatoes cools into a pipe-choking yellowish blob after flowing into sewers, causing serious overflows that threaten homes and the Chesapeake Bay.
“People are using the sewer system as an alternative trash can, a very expensive alternative. Grease and food scraps are being sent down the sinks; disposable products, especially baby wipes and public restroom paper towels, are being flushed down the toilet,” said Robert A. Villée, a committee chairman for the Water Environment Federation.
Grease plays a starring role amid the other junk, Hairfield said. “When you put grease on top of onion skins, potato skins and all that other stuff, it’s like glue. It sticks to the pipes.”
In the extensive and poorly funded American sewer infrastructure, with pipes as old as the Gettysburg Address in many places, grease from commercial operations and households is causing up to 40 percent of sewer overflows nationwide that back raw sewage into sinks and bathtubs and into local waterways.
The presence of fat in the bowels of cities and suburbs is just one symptom of a more pressing problem in the nation’s old and decrepit sewers, said Adam Krantz, managing director of governmental affairs for the National Association of Clean Water Agencies.
“We are facing a looming crisis in terms of our water infrastructure,” Krantz said. “We are nearing the 40th anniversary of the Clean Water Act in October, and we are seeing some pipes and treatment systems nearing the end of their useful lives.”
Money used by utilities to upgrade facilities and cut down on overflows to meet Environmental Protection Agency regulations could buy larger and more efficient pipes that can overcome grease, tree roots and other problems.
But the estimated pricetag for fixing the nation’s new water infrastructure over the next 20 years is steep — $334 billion, according to the EPA. So cash-strapped utilities are making do with what they have, relying on patch work.
“If we could reduce one tablespoon of grease per household, that’s 57,000 gallons of grease we wouldn’t have to deal with,” said George Martin, general manager of a sewer system in Greenwood, S.C.
Martin spoke as if his proposition were a fantasy, and Villée knows why: “No one’s coming to arrest you for this one.”
Wastewater treatment inspectors bypass homeowners and target businesses with fines. Last year, for example, WSSC hit Lakeforest Mall with penalties of nearly $10,000 for interceptors that failed to trap enough grease. The mall finally bought interceptors worth $200,000 after being threatened with a $50,000 fine, said Wayne Ludwig, WSSC’s coordinator for fat, oil and grease.
In 2009, Fairfax County sued Krispy Kreme Doughnuts in a dispute over whether a plant in Lorton flooded its sewers with grease. Krispy Kreme settled the case for nearly $2 million.
Sewer overflows caused by grease trigger fines because they are among the worst stinking, with no rain or stormwater runoff to dilute waste that oozes from manhole covers and up toilets and kitchen sinks — and often into waters that sustain wildlife and that people rely on for recreation.
“If a sanitary sewer overflow happens with grease and not rain, it is pure raw waste,” said Hairfield, senior investigator in Ludwig’s grease unit. “In some cases, we’ve had an acre covered with toilet paper and debris. Once in Southern Maryland, a manhole cover overflowed and went to the bottom of a wooded area. Every beaver in the area abandoned their dams.”
During the 2002 swimming season, sewer discharges from pipes prior to treatment were responsible for 7 percent of beach closings and advisories, according to an EPA survey.
Along with the smell, microbial pathogens are a good reason to avoid sewer overflows. Just touching them can make people queasy enough to vomit, or worse. Eating shellfish contaminated by an overflow has put people in hospitals. You don’t have to swallow microbes to get sick; they can seep through your skin, the EPA said.
Still, most homeowners in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties ignore the WSSC’s advice: Don’t wash greasy cookware and pour it down the drain. Buy a plastic container or tin can, pour grease into it, let it cool, then toss it in the trash.
“That’s what people should do but they don’t, and we know because we have grease here,” said Lyn Riggins, a WSSC spokeswoman. By here she meant the 5,400 miles of pipe that runs through the two counties, the eighth-longest system in the nation, serving about 1.8 million people.
Around Thanksgiving, WSSC officials brace themselves, Riggins said. That’s when thousands of people deep-fry turkeys and pour tubs of lard down drains. Last year during the holiday, WSSC ran public service announcements in theaters before movies on the proper way to dispose of grease at home.
On the morning before they stopped at Panda Express, Hairfield and Ludwig entered a wastewater pumping station in Hyattsville, not blinking as the awesome sewer stench blew into their faces.
They went down metal steps into the dank station that pumps 6 million gallons of wastewater daily toward a treatment facility. Against a wall, Ludwig pointed out a two-foot-tall blob of grease atop 17 feet of wastewater.
Last year, as in years past, the WSSC paid $82,000 to suck grease out of that one station. There are about 45 others.
“You can pump all day and not get all of it,” Ludwig said. “Just make it a bit more manageable.”