Stay-at-home means flaming trash trucks, clogged sewer pipes in central PA
When the stay at home order was introduced in Pennsylvania on April 1, the pattern of garbage disposal also changed, moving from a combination of commercial and residential to mostly residential.
With the sudden change came new challenges for those on the receiving end of the waste stream.
More and more disinfectant wipes, diapers and other foreign objects that were not intended for sewage systems flowed through the pipes. Problems have also increased in the waste transport business.
Frankie Campagne, general manager of the York sewage treatment plant, recently stood over a tank and looked down at a gray turbulent sewage soup.
“There’s a rag there,” he said, pointing to a swirling white spot. And then another and another spinning textile rectangle swirled by as the constant stream of unwanted objects led into a dark tunnel.
The operations manager describes how these tea towels, disinfectant wipes and other items that do not break while driving the 100 mile long manifolds are prevented from reaching the endangered parts of the facility.
Two large silver boxes nearby contain redundant bar screen systems that are the first and last line of defense separating these floating threats from the facility before they can ruin expensive pumps or clog pipes.
Campagne is responsible for moving 10 million gallons of wastewater from eight communities every day through a treatment process that eventually directs the water into Codorus Creek, meeting environmental criteria.
The Manchester Township plant is between Route 30 and the Codorus. Campagne says it is an evolution of best practices for treating wastewater in the same location since 1915. The earliest buildings still exist along with modern construction and technology.
The industrial setting contrasts with the verdant banks of Codorus Creek in spring. Heritage Rail Trail County Park runs on the opposite bank, and bald eagles soar over the creek. Pink wildflowers bloom in the grass around a concrete bunker that anchors a 6 foot diameter pipe of fast-flowing, murky, gray water.
The screening process
The bar screeners are an important part of the operation. They are made with holes about an inch in diameter and trap whatever they cannot pass through in the sewage. A rake, which looks more like a long metal comb with short, wide teeth, wipes past the screen and uses an automated process to pull the material into a chute.
A screw conveyor leaves the screen and uses a stainless steel pipe with screw paddles to move the waste into a building with large dumpsters. In the tube, the mash, Campagne describes as “fats, oils, fats, rags, baby diapers, (even) teddy bears …”, moves towards a small building where it is stored and carried away.
Huge, brown, partially dried pieces randomly fall from a chute and pile up in a bin the size of a pickup truck before going to the garbage disposal. The intense smells that come out of this trash can tell a messy story of a thousand lives.
“Replacing a pump costs money. Replacing all types of equipment costs money. Pipe cleaning costs money, ”Campagne said, referring to the damage caused when these items get past the screeners.
Campagne points out that even before the plant is affected, these materials can combine with oils in the water and turn into large lumps that clog the sewers where they get from the houses to the main.
This can indirectly affect homeowners who do not flush these items if sewage builds up in their home. The lumps of fat in the sewer lines are not selective as to where they form and clog.
On April 29, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection issued a non-flushable item warning. “Tissues, paper towels, and disposable wipes, including cleaning wipes and diaper wipes, cannot be safely rinsed, even if labeled as flushable or biodegradable.” The DEP recommended that only toilet paper and human waste be flushed.
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“As industry and commerce have reduced their business activity and people stay home more often, we are seeing more domestic use,” said Campagne.
The random trash floating in the facility has increased while ordering at home, as commercial users are regulated about what they can discharge into the sewer lines. Retail clients are on the honor system to control what they flush, he said.
“The church has to help us … often people feel like I’m flushing it in the toilet, it’s gone, it’s not my headache, but it becomes a headache for other areas of the church … It affects both the homeowner and the homeowner also the system performance, ”said Campagne.
And it’s not just sewage problems that increase while staying at home.
Recently, in Lancaster County’s Paradise Township, the cargo caught fire in a Penn Waste Inc. garbage truck and the operator dumped the burning mass on a street according to protocol.
Amanda Moley, Penn Waste’s marketing director, said the collection company responded in less than a month to three such fires, caused by homeowners dumping pool chemicals, rechargeable batteries and hot ashes.
The company posted a picture on its Facebook page on April 30 of a truck whose load on fire was caused by something that was thrown in the trash for pickup.
The text of the post reads: “We’re going to say this a little louder so the people in the background can hear it. PLEASE STOP PUTTING HAZARDOUS WASTE IN YOUR CURBSIDE TRASH & RECYCLING.”
Replacing an entire truck can cost up to $ 250,000. “Most of all, our people are invaluable,” said Moley. The recent garbage fires did not result in any injuries.
According to Moley, with 185,000 private customers, the company has “seen a 20% increase in waste volume since the pandemic, directly related to more people being at home, eating at home, gardening and shopping online.”
She said that “the amount of cardboard we see (go for recycling) is similar to what we normally see on holidays.”
Back in the sewage treatment plant, most of the workforce continues operations. Regarding how to deal with the coronavirus, Campagne said, “It’s no different than dealing with all the different things that come through the plant, whether it’s hepatitis, viruses … we were ready for that.”
He added, “As they say in Hollywood, the show has to go on.”
The photographer / reporter Paul Kuehnel can be reached at [email protected]