Video+Story: ‘Stop treating your toilet like a trash can.’ COVID19 related items clogging EPWater pipes

Before flushing wipes, face coverings or latex gloves, El Paso Water officials are urging residents to consider the consequences.

With more residents wearing personal protective equipment during the pandemic, EPWater employees are facing a spike in blockages that is seriously straining the city’s wastewater system.

“To be clear, only toilet paper and human waste are flushable,” said David Ornelas, Wastewater Systems Division Manager. “Wipes – despite labels claiming they are “flushable” – paper towels, napkins and cloth do not break down as easily as toilet paper in the wastewater system.”

Diverted from routine essential duties, crews manually unclogged four pumps at EPWater’s newest wastewater pumping station in the far East Side multiple times over the course of a few days.

Choked with mounds of latex, feminine products and cloth – including rags and socks – crews cleared one pump after another as blockages continued to build.

Flushing non-degradable items, such as wipes, creates blockages in the wastewater system. | Photo courtesy EP Water

Flushing non-degradable items clogs and damages wastewater systems as well as homes’ internal plumbing. Wastewater overflows can result, threatening the health of nearby residents and EPWater employees working to clear them.

No one is sure whether the blockages are a result of toilet paper shortages, the use of alternative paper products or COVID-19-related cleaning, but it’s a challenge many utilities around the nation are experiencing.

The Environmental Protection Agency recently joined efforts to urge Americans to dispose of non-flushable items in the trash. The EPA also praised the nation’s wastewater workforce, which is on the frontline daily protecting human health and the environment.

Though it may be convenient to flush items down the drain, the wastewater system ultimately endures the consequences.

“Flushing these items increases the amount of maintenance and time required for operators to unclog screens and pumps, not to mention increasing the wear and tear on the equipment,” Ornelas added. “These clogs cause wastewater to back up into the system, increase odors and even cause a blockage within the resident’s property.”

EPWater employees have cleared a series of clogs at the Montwood Lift Station in far east El Paso. | Photo courtesy EP Water

Out of sight, out of mind may be the attitude when flushing something down the toilet, Ornelas said.

“Our wastewater system is not designed for items that are not human waste or toilet paper,” Ornelas said. “There are a lot of impacts that people don’t see down the line, but we see them on our side.”

Maintenance Mechanic Christopher Tena frequently sees this damage firsthand. Tena was a member of the crew who worked to free pumps of debris at Montwood Lift Station.

“Ultimately, what you flush affects everybody in our community,” Tena said.

“I just want to beg the public: Please don’t flush things that shouldn’t be flushed,” said Alan Shubert, Vice President of Operations and Technical Services.

“We unclogged Montwood Lift Station about 20 times in three days. That’s a 2-year-old, state-of-the-art lift station. We’re not supposed to be able to clog these pumps, and we are clogging the hell out of them.”