SPECIAL REPORT: Pre-moistened wipes clogging up Austin sewers

At the Walnut Creek Waste Water Treatment Facility in Austin, pre-moistened wipes are clogging up the system.

"This mechanical arm is gonna go down with slots. It's going to go in between the screens and basically lift the trash up, put it onto a conveyer belt where it's then transported next door to a dumpster," said James Bennett with the facility.

He says pre-moistened wipes are being flushed down toilets and a lot of it ends up at the facility -- if they're lucky.

If they're not lucky, the stuff will clog up a line before ever even making it to the big mechanical arm.

"Many years ago we were cleaning lift stations every 3 to 5 years. Now we have some in town that we're cleaning every 2 to 3 weeks," he said.

The Walnut Creek facility sees up to 75 million gallons of water per day. Paul George says the wipes are damaging their equipment.

"We have problems with our large interceptor backing up so there's more labor involved and you're processing much more of the material. The costs go up and the labor is increased," George said.

"What's happening is these mats are becoming entwined in the control systems -- basically causing the control systems to fail, it's shutting the alarming systems down, inside the wet wells so we're not getting notified," Bennett said.

According to Bennett, as the wipes ride down the collection system they intertwine with cooking grease, hair and other trash...forming sometimes giant "rag balls" as they call them -- a problem that's led to several outages Bennett's crews have had to deal with.

"We've had 5 major SSO's at lift stations in the city of Austin, in the Austin Water Utility basin in the last 3 years and all 5 of them have been directly contributed to these grease mats building up inside the lift stations," he said.

Some wipes on the market warn consumers not to flush them like baby wipes and household cleaning wipes. Others are advertised as "flushable."

and the companies that make those wipes are confident their flushable products are fit for the toilet.

Speaking with Dave Rousse, the President of the Association of Non-Woven Fabrics Industry -- he says wipes producers have to pass 7 tests before they can claim their wipes are flushable.

"It's inappropriate flushing of non-flushables that is causing the problem. It is not the flushables and nobody has presented any evidence that flushables cause any problems," Rousse said.

Rousse says they are working with their members to change consumer behavior -- like getting them to put a "No flush" logo prominently on the package for those wipes not meant to be flushed.

But not everyone agrees that flushables are NOT showing up at water treatment plants along with the non-flushable wipes.

According to a study done at the Portland Water District in Maine a few years ago, wipes were removed from the system and analyzed. The findings show baby wipes -- which are not meant to be flushed -- made up 18% of the unwanted junk showing up at the pump station. But wipes advertised as flushable made up 12%.

Meredith Steiner is a fairly new mom. She's still using baby wipes to clean her one-year-old daughter Stella. She says she's never even thought of flushing them.

As for the "flushable" wipes for adults, that's a no-go too.

"We don't use those. Nope. We never have used those. Just...we're toilet paper people," she said.

Steiner says she and her husband are eco-friendly and throwing baby wipes or flushable wipes down the toilet is not their style.

"You can't be that way. We can't afford to be that way, we can't afford to think that way," Steiner said.

According to the Austin Water Department, the maintenance costs to fix their wipe-ravaged equipment gets passed on to the consumer.

"The toilet is not the trash can. You already pay to have your trash service and things that are trash need to go. Anything that's not human waste, anything that's not toilet paper doesn't need to go in the toilet. That's all our system is really built to handle," Bennett said.

So basically...

"Just because it's flushable...that just means it's capable of being flushed, it's not supposed to be flushed," he said.