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Sewer problems still headache for Greenfield

GREENFIELD — Tree roots, feminine hygiene products, “disposable” wipes and cooking grease are at the root of the town’s recent spate of sewer line backups.

Marlo Warner, the town’s public works field superintendent, said when his crew is called to a home because of a sewer backup, it is usually because of a combination of two or more of those things.

Warner, Mark Holley, Greenfield’s water facilities superintendent, and Arthur Baker, the town’s Department of Public Works director, said it seems there have been more calls about sewer clogs and backups over the past six months than there have been in the past year and a half, but that’s not necessarily unusual.

“It comes and goes in cycles,” said Warner. “We can go weeks without a call and then get a dozen calls in one week. We don’t always have an answer for why that happens.”

The blockages in question occur in small service lines that run from the street to people’s homes.

According to DPW records, public works had 175 sewer calls in 2010, 199 in 2011, 119 in 2012, and so far this year there have been 203 calls.

The three men said there’s not enough of a difference in the number of calls over the past four years for the town to start worrying.

“It’s not the main lines that are having the problems,” said Baker.

He said residents may be noticing more sewer calls listed in the police log or may be hearing about more calls on police scanners, but that’s because many of the calls have happened after hours, so they are redirected to dispatch, which then calls the public works two-man crew, which is on call 24 hours a day to deal with the most serious sewer problems.

During regular hours, people may call the DPW directly at 413-772-1528.

Baker said Greenfield is one of very few towns that takes care of the service lines that lead from the sewer mains to homes.

“Almost every other resident in the U.S. has to take care of the problem and pay for it themselves,” said Baker.

Warner said when public works receives a sewer call, it goes to the home, checks the main line outside first to make sure the problem isn’t there, and then goes into the house to find the problem.

“We do a complete evaluation and make sure the sewer cap has not been left off in the basement,” he said.

Warner said if the problem is found in the service line leading from the main line to the home the crew uses a machine similar to the one Roto-Rooter uses to clear the pipe and free it from whatever is clogging it.

He said if it isn’t an emergency or public works is already dealing with an emergency, the homeowner has to make a decision as to whether he or she waits or hires someone to fix the problem at their own cost.

He said the town moves as quickly as it can when it gets a sewer call.

“We get to each one as soon as possible,” he said. “We have to prioritize.”

Warner said public works also has a camera system to help find any problems in sewer lines.

He said disposable wipes and grease are two of the biggest culprits.

“Just because something is advertised ‘disposable,’ does not mean it is flushable,” said Warner.

Warner said he doesn’t believe the town has had to visit many homes to deal with clogs more than once or twice.

“We try to talk with residents and tell them what they should stop doing,” said Warner.

“There’s also a lot more use during the holiday season, so we sometimes get a lot more calls this time of year,” he said.

“It can wash things into the sewer line and then you have a plug,” said Warner. “Then again, we had really heavy rains in the recent past and didn’t have one call.”

He said sometimes there are too many variables to determine what is causing a particular sewer problem.

Holley said people have to be careful when disposing of wipes advertised as “flushable.”

“They get tangled in sewer and then other things get caught up with them,” said Holley. “It can be a real mess. They get tangled and weave around equipment and cause lots of damage.”

He said so-called disposable wipes do not break down in water like toilet paper does, for example, and it can end up costing the town several thousand dollars and a lot of manpower and time each year to untangle and remove them.

Holley said toilet paper is all that should be flushed into the sewer system.

Another problem is residents and restaurants pouring grease down the drain, said Sarah Campbell, the town’s engineering superintendent, in a recent interview.

She said the town has collected a “good amount” of greasy chunks this year, after cooking oil and grease made their way into the town’s sewer system and solidified.

Campbell said restaurants are required to have grease traps, but residents are not required to do the same.

She said when grease gets into sewer lines it hardens, turning into the consistency of household bar soap. It can create environmental and health hazards, as well as sewer clogs and overflows, she said.

Campbell said experts suggest that people put excess solidified grease in the trash and that restaurants keep grease traps connected. Oil that does not solidify may be mixed with bark chips, cat litter or sand and then thrown in the trash.

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