NORWAY — The request is very simple. Don’t put disposable wipes down the toilet.

“Disposable wipes should not go in the toilet,” said Mechanic Falls Sanitary District Supervisor Tom Schultz, whose crews have to regularly unclog pounds of disposable wipes and other material from underground pumps by hand.

“It’s really an advertising thing. Put them in the water, and they’ll be there two years later,” he said.

The increasing problem, which is being experienced by many of the local area sewer plants, is costing towns thousands of dollars in equipment repairs, replacement parts and overtime for those who have to answer the emergency calls when a connection overflows.

“You never get used to it,” said Mechanic Falls sewer operator Nick Konstantoulakis as he climbed out of the cylinder shaft elevator 35 feet underground after cleaning out clogged sewer pumps. It’s a job he does at least once, even several times a week.

Konstantoulakis says he has seen it all from baby toys to plastic building blocks that people put down toilets and storm drains and eventually end up in the sewer pumps.

Paris Utility District Director Steve Arnold said he often gets calls from customers who have slow connections but swear they never put anything inappropriate down their toilets.

“One day a customer called us and said their connection was running slow,” Arnold said. A crew was dispatched to the home and a nearby manhole was uncovered, revealing a 4-foot-thick, solid clog, including remnants of the dreaded mesh paper towels. Arnold said the homeowner still denied throwing inappropriate materials in the toilet even though the house was the only one on the road.

“That was a $1,600 day for us,” Arnold said.

In Norway, town officials sent out a call for help from residents last year when sewer workers began to pull as much as 55 gallons of towelettes, feminine hygiene products, condoms and other goods that residents flushed down the toilet.

Norway officials said workers clean the clogged pumps at least three times a week, costing the town thousands of dollars. More than three pumps, which should last for years, burned out at a cost of about $2,800 a pump in 2007. Two of those pumps burned out within six months.

The situation has not improved much, Norway Sewer Superintendent Shawn Brown said.

Mac Richardson, superintendent of the Lewiston-Auburn Water Pollution Control Authority, said the problem is not serious at the wastewater treatment plant that serves both cities, in part because the clogs usually happen at the sewer pumps, which are manned by another department.

“I’m not saying we have no problems, but they’re fairly few and far between for us because we have a lot of flow going through, and they (wastewater products) go through bar screens,” Richardson said. The plant runs 11 to 12 million gallons of wastewater a day, compared to the Mechanic Falls plant that runs about 125,00 gallons daily.

“What we can do is not the same as what Mechanic Falls can do,” Richardson said. “In some cases the equipment does not exist (for the smaller wastewater plants.)”

“I do know a number of systems have had a plethora of problems, especially with Swifter wipe heads being putting down the system. For us here, we don’t see a lot,” he said.

Norman Lamie, general manager of the Auburn Sewerage District that pumps into the Lewiston-Auburn plant, said the problems with clogged pumps are there.

“We have 23 sewer pump stations throughout Auburn. Typically two or three pumps are unavailable. It’s a maintenance headache,” he said of the problem of clogged sewer pumps. The district spends about $50,000 to $60,000 a year in pump maintenance, but that is not all because of disposal-wipe clogs, Lamie said. If one pump is clogged once a month for 12 months, it probably costs about $5,000 to $6,000 of the overall maintenance budget, he said.

When asked if there has been any improvement in the number of disposal items being flushed down toilets that shouldn’t be, his answer was no.

“There’s been no improvement.”

It’s an ongoing problem that sewer department officials say could end up not only with sewer overflows but in customer rate increases to cover the department’s increased costs.

Just this past week Arnold said he went to the Paris pump station three times to unclog pumps that become tangled in as little as two pounds of stuff.

“The wipe itself is indestructible,” he said of the cloth that wraps around the pump and causes the motor to overheat. When the pumps don’t pump, the line fills up. It can back up out of the pump station, and despite alarms on the system, Arnold said it could back up into residents’ connections.

“It’s not a good thing,” he said.

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Nick Konstantoakis, from the Mechanic Falls Sanitary District, hoists the top off of one of the town’s two pumps 30 feet below ground as he prepares to clean it out. The pumps must be cleaned weekly and after heavy rains because people are flushing baby wipes that clog the pump.

Baby wipes and other debris sits on the floor after employees of the Mechanic Falls Sanitary District cleaned out the pumps 30 feet under ground. The pumps must be cleaned weekly and after heavy rains because people are flushing baby wipes that clog the pump

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