Public Works urges residents and restaurants to dispose of grease properly

It is tempting to imagine that kitchen sinks, shower drains and toilets are domesticated black holes, transporting our waste to some mysterious nether region outside space and time, where it ceases to exist the moment it is out of sight.

However, Public Works Director Tom Wetor knows better than anyone in Wrangell that the spoiled milk, blackened cooking oil and remnants of last night’s dinner that are flushed into the sewer do not disappear. Pouring oil, grease and fat down the drain can damage essential infrastructure, strain the public works staff and produce the most disgusting dessert of all time — the sewer probe grease cake.

According to Wetor, it’s normal for a thin layer of grease, fat and oil to float on top of the wastewater that flows through the sewer system. Small amounts of oil may enter the system when households wash their dishes, for example. But the volume of grease entering Wrangell’s sewers is far above normal levels.

“Every two to three months’ time, our grease will be up to a foot thick,” said Wetor, describing the pump stations along the sewer line. “That’s way more than it should be.” Clearing the grease from a station is a three-person job — one worker power washes, one is on suction duty, and another mans the pumps. “It’s a significant process for us and it takes some time for sure.”

Grease buildups don’t only impact the public works staff, they also subject essential equipment to unnecessary wear and tear. When wastewater levels rise past a certain point, probes detect the water and activate pumps that move the sewage through the system. However, when a thick layer of grease floats on top of the wastewater, it coats the probes, creating a “grease cake.”

Grease cakes can trick the probes into pumping over 10 times more often than necessary, wearing down the expensive machinery. “A pump that’s designed to run dozens of times a day will run hundreds of times a day,” Wetor said.

These over-strained sewage pumps do not come cheap. Though they aren’t the most glamorous items, the pumps at stations (called “nodes”) four and six cost about as much as a brand-new Lamborghini. “The pumps at node four are close to $30,000 a piece,” said Wetor. “At node six they’re closer to $40,000. That’s over $200,000 of infrastructure that we are burning up more regularly than we should be.”

In 2021, the Public Works Department implemented “bio blocks” to help manage grease buildups. Bio blocks are slow-dissolving solids that release bacteria into sewage to reduce odor and break grease down.

Unfortunately, they have been insufficient to solve the grease problem on their own. Before using bio blocks, the buildup was the texture of “bacon grease when it’s cold,” said Wetor. “Bio blocks turn it into a jelly consistency.” Though introducing bacteria makes sewage grease easier to work with, the problem won’t go away until residents and businesses reduce the amount of grease they’re putting into the system, he explained.

Wetor hopes residents will avoid washing grease, fat and oil down their drains as much as possible. To properly dispose of grease, wipe it up and throw it in the trash.

However, Wetor suspects that private residences are not solely responsible for the abnormal amounts of oily sludge in Wrangell’s sewers. He believes the likeliest explanation is that certain area restaurants are not using grease traps.

Grease traps intercept kitchen wastewater before it enters the sewer and remove substances that could interfere with the system. Traps are required in all commercial food establishments in Alaska and throughout the United States. When New York City found that 73% of its restaurants were non-compliant with its grease trap ordinance, it implemented a $1,000 per day fine for violations around 2012.

Wetor, however, does not plan to take such a punitive approach. He hopes the borough will hire a health and safety inspector to ensure that restaurants have functional traps. He would give businesses time to comply with any regulations they are not meeting.

Local restaurants are “kind of on the honor system right now” for their regulatory compliance, explained Wetor. Though he has no desire to “shame a business,” the strain that excess grease is putting on the sewer system and public works staff is becoming too significant to ignore.

His only other option would be to install new sewer pumps that circulate wastewater to break down buildups. New pumps, however, would come with a catalog of new problems like a steep overhead cost, higher upkeep expenses and an additional maintenance step.


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