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Orem sewers plagued by phantom dumper; unidentified waste causing emergency

By Genelle Pugmire daily Herald - | Oct 27, 2016
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Pieces of unidentifiable non-toxic waste float in a clarifier Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2016, at the Orem Wastewater Treatment Plant. The waste isn't hazardous, but appears about once a week in large amounts and clogs up the water treatment system. ISAAC HALE, Daily Herald

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Aerobic digesters are pictured Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2016, at the Orem Wastewater Treatment Plant. Recently, an excess of unidentifiable non-toxic waste has been hitting the plant heavily about once a week. ISAAC HALE, Daily Herald

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Lawrence Burton, water reclamation section manager, walks on a catwalk above an aerobic digester that will eventually filter water back into the environment Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2016, at the Orem Wastewater Treatment Plant. ISAAC HALE, Daily Herald

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Lawrence Burton, water reclamation section manager, looks over a clarifier Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2016 at the Orem Wastewater Treatment Plant. Burton is in his 33rd year working at the plant. ISAAC HALE, Daily Herald

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Bits of unidentifiable non-toxic waste stick to a metal filter in a clarifier Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2016, at the Orem Wastewater Treatment Plant. The waste isn't hazardous, but appears about once a week in large amounts and clogs up the water treatment system. ISAAC HALE, Daily Herald

Non-toxic masses of fibrous goo have been traveling on a weekly basis through Orem’s sewer system and causing havoc with the filtration system.

“Waste materials are being dumped once a week, usually on Thursday, and we have no idea where it’s coming from,” said Lawrence Burton, water reclamation manager.

Burton said the substance could have been dumped down any one of the 6,000 manhole locations in the city for the past four to five months.

At first glance, Burton said they thought it might be grease or some form of animal fat, but at second glance they saw much more.

“It’s like ground-up paper or fabric is in the substance,” Burton said. “It takes an excessive amount of water to clean material like this out of the system and it’s clogging lines.”

The city had the substance tested for toxicity; and it is non-toxic. That said, there is just too much of it being dumped down the sewer lines.

“It’s not toxic, not petroleum, and not grease or animal substance,” Burton said. “We don’t know if it’s a new local business dumping, or if it’s hauled-in waste.”

Water resources division manager Neal Winterton said the discharges, also known as slug loads, could be innocent, but could also be a business or someone dumping on purpose.

“It’s an emergency,” Winterton said. “We’re having more tests done to narrow down the fibers so we can find out what type of business it could be.”

The pollutants come into the plant dissolved, according to Winterton. The substance gets through the initial screening process; it’s when it goes through the skimmers and pumps that separate the solids from the liquids that it’s clogging the system.

Burton said they got hit last Thursday again by the phantom dumper. “We think someone is hauling it in and have no idea where from.”

It is possible that it is even coming outside of the state. Fines would be $1,000 or more a day if caught.

Winterton said he hasn’t put pen to paper to figure out how much over the last few months it has truly cost the city, but it takes four or five employees a full day’s work each time a dumping occurs. 

“It disrupts the treatment process severely and uses more water and power to flush out the substance,” Winterton said. 

Burton said they would have to be hauling that huge amount in some kind of large septic tank truck. They have to mix thousands of gallons of water with the substance to get it to flow in the system.

“It takes about 48 hours to clean out the system after it’s dumped,” Burton said. “It’s got to be thousands of gallons dumping in with large amounts of water.”

Burton said in the past the city has seen many one-time dumps of substances like oil or something similar, but never at this magnitude.

The city is hoping residents will be alert and help them find out who might be doing this illegal dumping.

“Most people see a large tank truck and don’t think anything of it,” Burton said. “We don’t want people to approach the truck, but (if they see one) a license plate number or name on the truck would be helpful.”

He noted the city will know where its own trucks are assigned to be and which one is not theirs.

Winterton said they would like to find out who is doing it just to educate them on proper dumping and discharging to the system.

Burton said there are three numbers residents can call with any information they might have on the dumping. There is an illegal dumping hotline at (801) 229-7577; or daytime calls to the Public Works department at 229-7500; or police dispatch at (801) 229-7070.

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