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Nassau residents clog sewers by flushing socks, rags, gloves and wipes

Wipes cause a clog in a pump at

Wipes cause a clog in a pump at a lift station. Credit: Courtesy SUEZ

Nassau residents are clogging sewage treatment plants with flushed socks, T-shirts, gloves and disinfectant wipes, taxing essential workers as they try to cope with an unanticipated effect of statewide lockdown orders.

Residents who are at home under social distancing rules have been flushing cloth and other fibrous materials that bind together in sewer pipes and arrive at treatment plants in large clots, officials said.

Only waste and toilet paper should be flushed, public works officials said. Wipes advertised as "flushable" often don't break down, they said.

“When you start pulling socks out of a pump, that’s pretty surprising, because usually you shouldn’t see that in a sewer system," said Vincent Desiderio, maintenance manager for Suez North America, a private company that operates Nassau’s sewer system.

"When you start seeing pieces of fabric, and then you see socks and stuff like that, it’s pretty alarming," Desiderio said. "It will stop a pump.”

The materials are taking a toll on local sewage systems.

Rag pileups caused 48 percent of sewage system blockages between Jan. 1 and March 31, Suez said. During that period in each of the past three years, rags caused between 11 percent and 17 percent of blockages.

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County officials said Suez had to repair 65 clogged sewer lifts — pumps in low-lying areas that elevate sewage to move it to the wastewater plant — through March 31, compared with 48 pumps that had to be fixed in the first quarter last year. Suez officials said fabric blockages caused the increase.

There has been an increase in calls for pump failures, and, “what we pulled out were rags and socks,” Desiderio said.

"It could be the cleaning materials, now that everybody’s wanting to disinfect their houses," Desiderio said.

The idea is "it's out of sight, out of mind," said Brian Schneider, Nassau deputy county executive for parks and public works.

Disposable wipes are causing significant problems for the Great Neck Water Pollution Control District, said Superintendent Chris Murphy. The district operates with commissioners and is not county-run.

When flushed, the fibrous material mats together.

"It never really comes into the district as one wipe, it comes in as a mass or clots," Murphy said. "It puts a big shockload on mechanical equipment that has to move them or when it comes to pump stations, when you have to pump them.”

The situation is "historic,” Murphy said. “We've never had any kind of situation where we’re physically vacuuming wipes off the tops of wet wells."

Steve Reiter, a commissioner with the district, said "with this virus, you worry about staffing needs, but anything that creates additional work is a problem, and it’s easily solved by our residents if they just follow some very, very simple rules."

Suffolk County, where sewers serve only about 30 percent of homes, has avoided such problems, said county spokesman Derek Poppe.

"Thankfully we have not seen any problems arise as a result of [personal protective equipment] or sanitation materials in pipes or sewage treatment plants maintained by the County," Poppe said.

"We thank the public for their continued efforts keeping our pipes and sewers clean as we fight to flush this virus out of our communities," said Poppe.

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