Since the start of COVID, the Bethel Park/South Park Wastewater Treatment Plant has experienced weekly clogs in its system, something that hasn’t happened for at least the past 35 years according to Treatment Plant Superintendent Scott Dunn.

“I’ve worked here over 35 years and haven’t experienced anything like this before,” said Dunn.  “Since COVID, we have weekly clogs; before, we simply didn’t experience these issues.”

And, residents are experiencing backups in their homes as well due to flushing a variety of items down their commodes.

“It’s unbelievable what we see people flushing,” said Dunn.

According to John Oakes of Bethel Park’s All Pro Plumbing and a member of the Municipal Authority Board, “In the past, we normally handled clogs involving flushable wipes 2-3 times a year; now, we see it happening 3-5 times each week.  People are flushing baby wipes, flushable wipes, sanitary items and other things since the start of the pandemic.”

Previously, Oakes said that the main cause of clogs was primarily due to tree roots growing into the pipes.  Now with the increase of flushing non-flushable items, resident homes are frequently being affected.

“People call because they have water or sewage backup coming into the floor drains of their garages or basements,” said Oakes.  “We go out and snake it and about 50 percent of the time, we can pull out what’s in the sewer line or we can push it through to clear out the customer’s line.”

According to Oakes, the average sewer cleaning cost is $195; however, heavier clogs requiring more machinery may cost more. 

“If it’s badly clogged and repairs are needed, the cost can reach the thousands to dig up and repair a line.  While simple clogs can be handled fairly quickly, more extensive ones can take up to about a week to replace something like a broken pipe line,” added Oakes.

And, he said people are usually surprised when they see that their lines were clogged from flushable wipes.

“When we pull out the clog, the wipes are usually dirty and brown because they don’t break down and disintegrate in water,” he said.  “Customers are usually surprised and question what we’re pulling out of their line and we explain that it’s the wipes.”

Dunn explained that if an item doesn’t disintegrate in water, it should not be flushed.

“Really, the only thing that should be flushed along with waste is toilet paper,” said Dunn.  “Not wipes, even though many are marked as flushable.”

Oakes further explained that 90 percent of the Bethel Park area has clay piping and anything travelling through it that isn’t smooth will get caught and cause a clog.

“Some of these wipes are also thicker than others which also causes issues,” said Oakes.  “These wipes do not break down in your plumbing system.  Sometimes, they travel into the main sewer, but most times, they’re getting clogged in the home’s sewage system.”

Another challenge is that Treatment Plant employees have to manually clean the clogs each week, which they’ve never had to do before. 

“We used to do periodic maintenance on the intake grinder sewage pumps for the Treatment Plant, now we have to do this almost weekly or we aren’t able to receive any water flow from the community,” said Dunn.  “Because our employees have to physically remove these items, it creates health and safety issues for them.”

Dunn explained that they’ll be installing some new equipment to help them deal with the issues that they’re now experiencing due to COVID.  However, “We’d truly appreciate our customers limiting what they flush to help the Plant run efficiently without the numerous weekly clogs.”