Cutting through the FOG: Taxpayers foot bill for grease going down drains

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by Doug Miller, KHOU 11 News

khou.com

Posted on November 24, 2011 at 12:13 AM

Updated Thursday, Nov 24 at 12:21 AM

HOUSTON -- Ask a plumber what Thanksgiving means to him and you won’t hear anything about turkey and cranberry sauce.

“I think stoppages,” Mike Villasama said, peering at the pipes beneath a kitchen sink.  “I think drain stoppages.  Absolutely.  That’s what it’s going to be.”

That’s what Thanksgiving always means to plumbers.  As surely as the day after Thanksgiving crowds the malls with shoppers, it also sends desperate homeowners in search of help unclogging drains jammed with everything from grease to turkey bones. And the days before the holiday are almost as busy, as people bracing for visiting relatives fix busted showers and toilets.

“Day after tomorrow is probably one of our busiest times of year,” Villasama said, speaking of the Friday that’s become a sort of undeclared national holiday.  “Phones won’t stop ringing.  We’ll have guys out all day long.”

But perhaps the most important plumbers in Houston are the crews working for the city’s Public Works Department.  As holiday revelers flush their leftovers and garbage down disposals, this crew is charged with the unenviable task of clearing fats, oils and grease out of the city’s sewer system.

“We’re gonna stay around here today and clean this whole system out,” said Allan Warren, an assistant maintenance manager supervising a crew clearing the sewers in a neighborhood just south of Rice University on the day before Thanksgiving.

A loud roar echoed out of the rumbling truck parked behind a shopping strip with a restaurant that Warren said has a history of dumping grease.  Workmen who’ve pulled the manhole covers off the streets in a number of places along a sewage line feed hoses beneath the streets.  Bystanders quickly learn to breathe through their mouths, and every once in a while, grease spews out of an open manhole.

Grease clogging sewage lines is a problem throughout the year, but it gets worse in winter. 

“This time of year, it’s cold,” Warren said.  “The weather, it makes it harder.  It hits the system, it hits the water and it just cakes up real hard.”

Sewage workers call this stuff FOG, an acronym for fats, oils and grease.  Congealing and hardening FOG can become a toxic problem for city sewage systems, sticking to the inner linings of drainage pipes and restricting the flow of wastewater badly enough to back the muck into homes and businesses.  It can also destroy sewage pipes, creating encrusted blockages so severe it’s ultimately cheaper to simply replace the pipes.

Images of the problem taken by remote cameras are downright disgusting.  They show wastewater flushing through thick layers of white muck clinging to the pipes, sometimes with congealed fat hanging down like stalactites in a cavern. 

Busting up the solidified grease and sucking it out of the sewage system gets expensive.  Houston city officials say they spend about a million taxpayer dollars a year cleaning up the mess caused mainly by careless chefs, especially kitchen workers at restaurants. Just one of the trucks used for the operation costs about $400,000.

That’s why the crew working under Allan Warren asks people to keep their grease out of the kitchen sink.

“If it was me, I’d just put it in a can,” Warren said. “That’s like the old-fashioned way our grandmother used to teach us.”

Coffee cans and plastic margarine tubs work especially well, but cooks cleaning up after a meal can also use a funnel to pour grease into soda or wine bottles.  Instead of pouring the stuff down the drain, it can be harmlessly deposited in the trash. 

“Yeah, just cut us some slack,” Warren said. “It makes our job a lot easier.”

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