Lumps of “flushable” wipes, plastic applicators and disposable masks float by as wastewater flows into the Franklin Department of Public Works.
Until a new $2.5 million screening building goes up, those items will continue to flow into the plant and clog pumps that are designed to treat wastewater before it flows into Youngs Creek.
The items — none of which should be flushed — have been present in Franklin’s wastewater for years, but the coronavirus pandemic made the problem more severe, said Sally Brown, the city’s wastewater superintendent.
With more people staying home and flushing more products down the toilet, the non-biodegradable waste has increased, clogging up sewer lines and pumps in the plant, and causing maintenance costs to far exceed the budget this year, Brown said.
The department sent out multiple notices with sewer bills this year, but the flow of flushable wipes, sanitizing wipes, feminine products, disposable masks and other non-biodegradable items have not decreased, she said.
The wastewater plant uses bacteria in its treatment processes that are capable of breaking down only bodily wastes and toilet paper, not plastics and cloth.
Since the items can’t be broken down, they clog up the system and have to be picked out manually by the four employees who keep the plant running 24/7. Brown says employees are run ragged between completing their regular duties and constantly unclogging the system.
“(It) not only is the maintenance of those pumps, it also costs a lot in manpower,” she said.
The department’s maintenance budget has already been exhausted, with about $80,000 spent to repair pumps that have gone down due to the non-biodegradable waste, Brown said.
That isn’t counting the four pumps that are down right now. Each repair costs between $12,000 and $27,000, depending on how complicated the work turns out to be, she said.
The Franklin Board of Public Works and Safety added another $175,000 to the department’s budget last week to ensure there’s enough money for the rest of the year.
Because spending that much on repairs is not sustainable, Brown, working with Wessler Engineering, came up with the screening building as a solution to filter out the non-biodegradable waste. A screening building is designed to capture all of the waste that can’t be broken down by the pumps before it reaches the pumps, she said.
In the meantime, a temporary screen was installed at the plant to keep anything that makes it past the pumps from getting into Youngs Creek, where the plant discharges treated wastewater.
The technology is already in use in other Indiana cities that are experiencing the same problem. The increase in non-biodegradable waste is causing problems for wastewater facilities all over the country as well as locally, as Wessler is also working on a similar project in Whiteland.
A solution to Franklin’s problem is still a few years away, as the $457,000 contract with Wessler was just approved last week. That will cover the design, preparing bid documents, permitting, construction administration and other services, according to the agreement.
The facility is expected to cost $2.5 million, according to Wessler’s estimates. Construction costs are already on hand, city officials said.
Mayor Steve Barnett plans to ask the Franklin City Council to put $1 million of the city’s allocation from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) toward the project. He will present that proposal and other ARPA spending plans to the council in the coming months.
The remaining $1.5 million is available in a fund set up to collect money for future wastewater projects. That money has been collected over time from sewer ratepayers, as a portion of each bill is allocated to the fund for system maintenance, Brown said.
Though the city will save time by not seeking a bond for the project, it will still be at least two years before the screening building is up and running. For now, Brown is pleading with ratepayers to stop flushing those items down their toilets.
If the problem persists, it could prompt a rate increase to handle the increased maintenance of the system.
“If I have to ask for money again next year and the year after, sewer bills could eventually go up,” Brown said. “The plant is getting some age on it and it does need repairs, but these repairs are uncalled for.”