BURRILLVILLE – In the dirty business of waste disposal, they’re known as “rags”: wet wipes flushed down toilets that must later be cleaned out of a sewer system not equipped to process them.
This year, officials say the wipes – often marketed as “flushable” – helped to create a 10 percent rate increase on Burrillville sewer bills.
And according to members of the Burrillville Sewer Commission, more increases are likely on the way this year.
On Wednesday, Jan. 13 members of the commission, along with engineers from Beta Group, presented the news: thanks in part to wipes that have clogged up wet wells and pump stations, the town must now begin a $4.5 million project to clean, maintain and upgrade the sewer system.
“It’s been a problem for the past 10 to 15 years, but it’s been a bigger problem since COVID,” James Dyment, an engineer from Beta, said of the wipes. “We get hundreds of those. They’re wrapping around our pumps. They’re clogging our piston pumps. It’s very critical that we do not have these rags in our sludge.”
Sewer officials broke down the process: Waste flushed down Burrillville toilets first heads to one of around a dozen pump stations in town.
Commission Chairman William Andrews said Sewer Department staff is “constantly,” cleaning out wipes that accumulate at the stations. Rags not caught there travel on to the wastewater treatment facility, where officials estimate some 2 to 4 feet of such debris now sits in the town’s wet wells.
“You get this big well full of grease, rags… and it’s all solidified,” said Andrews.
Burrillville’s wells, Andrews noted, have never been cleaned.
“We don’t know what we’re going to find there,” he told members of the Town Council on Wednesday. “We know we’ve got to clean them.”
To address the problem, the town must now build a temporary bypass to divert sludge out of the system’s “headworks,” the first phase of treatment at the 40 year old plant, where toilet paper, rags and debris are chopped into smaller pieces. The wells must be cleaned, and equipment upgraded to include better access, along with more modern screening and ventilation.
“It wasn’t designed for what people are throwing in their sewer system today,” Andrews said of the current setup.
And that’s not the only problem with the town’s sewers.
Urgent improvements are needed at the Oakland Pump Station, a waste stop that collects dirty water from several other stations in town, pumping it into the main facility. The station sits right next to the Branch River, which becomes a problem during floods, and needs additional improvements to elements including the electrical panel.
That work is expected to cost roughly $500,000, half of which should come back to the town through a grant, which Andrews noted has already been approved.
Sewer officials implemented the recent rate increase with knowledge that the problem was coming down the pipes, so to speak.
But since Beta got involved, they learned that their initial estimates were low. According to data provided this week, this project alone will add somewhere between $5.61 and $12.60 to the residential sewer rate, before any regular annual increases are worked in.
This week, commission members were seeking approval to take out bonds not to exceed $5 million to finance the sewer work with a 20 year loan.
And it won’t stop there.
Andrews noted that the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management is requiring all towns that have a wastewater facility to submit a resiliency plan, which is due in July of this year. State officials will look at the Burrillville’s system, including elements such as manholes and pipes, to determine what further upgrades are needed.
“Our immediate needs are what we explained tonight,” Andrews said.
Sewer officials gave tentative estimates that the current project would be completed by 2023, and some elements of the cost breakdown. But councilors ultimately tabled the matter in search of more detailed information.
Councilor Stephen Rawson said he has reservations on the proposed method of funding, noting the town could use a portion of its capital improvement budget toward a downpayment.
Town Manager Michael Wood said he wants a better handle on future costs coming down the pike, as well as more detailed schedule for the improvements.
“I personally feel at this time there’s a lot of uncertainty with how we’re being asked to approve this,” agreed Council President Don Fox.
Councilors unanimously tabled the issue, and commissioners are expected to return with a more detailed cost breakdown, time schedule and long term plan for the sewer system at a future meeting.
Regardless of fine-tuning, it’s clear the project will need to gain approval with some urgency: reimbursement for the pump station portion of the work will expire by mid summer.
Councilor Raymond Trinque pointed to the need for an information campaign as the town works to resolve the less than appealing issue.
“We’ve got to get people to understand that every wipe costs them,” Trinque said. “It costs you money because your rate is going up.”