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Wipe out? Minnesota cities ponder lawsuit over flushable wipes

The city of Wadena has been asked to consider joining a class action lawsuit regarding flushable wipes.

Public Works Director Dan Kovar was approached by an attorney from the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities.

The city of Wadena has experienced an increasing number of sewer backups and sent a message to residents earlier this year, explaining that many of the blockages could be attributed to these wipes.

"These blockages may not affect the household flushing the wipes but may be affecting a neighbor down the block, on the next street or someone clear across town," Kovar wrote.

The class action lawsuit was started by the city of Wyoming, which has also had trouble with backups caused by flushable wipes. The city of Wadena would not have to contribute any money toward the lawsuit. Kovar may need to contribute time and possible a deposition if it proceeded. If the class action lawsuit was successful, cities could see a payout.

Councilman Don Niles said that he has worked on some class action lawsuits and they can be somewhat burdensome timewise but given what the city has been experiencing it might be worth looking into.

The council suggested giving the information to City Attorney Jeff Pederson to look over before getting on board with the lawsuit.

Wipes labeled "flushable" - including baby wipes and those intended for adults - have been the subject of consternation among public works departments across the nation, particularly in recent years as they've gained popularity. A quick online search reveals stories of sewer problems related to the wipes everywhere from other small Minnesota cities to New York City. The New York Times reported the city's spent more than $18 million in the past five years on problems related to the wipes.

"Usually every time we do have a blockage or an emergency call like this, we do run across these items in there," Kovar said.

Each time a sewer backup happens, Kovar reports, it requires a city crew to identify where the blockage is occurring. If it is in the city's pipes, crews and equipment are sent to clear the blockage. This costs taxpayer dollars.

"I know how easy it is to just send this stuff down the pipe," Kovar said. "But unfortunately, just because it makes it down, doesn't mean it's going to not cause you a problem. If it causes someone else a problem, it's all taxpayer money that is spent trying to resolve these problems."

A particularly bad backup into a residential basement is what prompted Kovar to post the message. He said the problem was identified soon enough to isolate the issue to one home, although the blockage had the potential to affect up to 20 homes on the same line.

Those wipes that make it through the system can also cause problems at wastewater treatment plants. A 2014 article by Chris Groh, a wastewater trainer with the Wisconsin Rural Water Association, explained the lingering effects of the wipes.

"These wipes will plug pumps, shear apart and the resulting fibers will wrap around impellers or shafts (causing failures)," Groh wrote. "And as they're not biodegradable they have to be removed from the treatment flow at the plant headworks."

So how are these wipes able to be marketed as flushable when they're causing so many problems? The Association of the Nonwoven Fabrics Industry (INDA), the trade group for wet wipes said it encourages manufacturers to follow flushability guidelines developed by the group. These guidelines are non-binding, however, and even those might not be as intensive as they should be, Groh opined.

Groh wrote in testing wipes for flushability, manufacturers will slosh them in a collection system for three hours and measure their mass afterward. If the mass is reduced by 25 percent, the product is deemed flushable.

"When they test these things, they really move and beat the material around for three solid hours," Groh wrote. "Nothing like what you would find in your collection system."

A YouTube video made by Rob Villee, executive director of the Plainfield Area Regional Sewerage Authority in New Jersey, demonstrates how intact these wipes remain, despite soaking for up to three weeks in water. Six of the eight wipes Villee tested failed to break down at all.

In a press release, INDA reported it is collaborating with four other associations to produce a new edition of the flushability guidelines, set to be complete by July 2016. The groups are exploring establishing a "collaborative product stewardship initiative" to address concerns with industry practices.

The intent, INDA reports, "is for the associations to develop a roadmap for future activities, including improved product labeling, increased public education and better consumer information regarding product flushability." The groups will also discuss increasing accountability for wipes industry's "downstream impacts" of their products and the potential of working with other industries producing products tending to cause problems for sewers, including paper towels, feminine hygiene products and cotton swabs.

Forum News Service contributed to this story.

Anna Erickson
Anna Erickson is editor of the Wadena Pioneer Journal.
(218) 631-2561
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