March 12, 2010

Shrimp shells, antennas clog sewer system


— By

Staff Writer

PORTLAND — There's a new item causing havoc in the city's sanitary sewer system: shrimp parts.

The Portland Water District has had to clean out large clogs created by shrimp shells and antennas in the past three weeks, said Michelle Clements, spokeswoman for the district.

''Last week it ended up closing one of our new pumping stations at India Street,'' she said. ''We had to go in and manually clean it out.''

Workers have also been forced to shut down part of the East End treatment plant to remove the clogs. They estimate they have removed hundreds of pounds of shrimp waste in the past week alone, Clements said. No cost estimates have been made, but the work has been expensive, she said.

For the people who maintain Portland's sewer system -- and ultimately for the ratepayers who pay them -- shrimp is just the latest unwanted product to get flushed into the sewers and cause clogs and, sometimes, expensive repairs.

Sewers have long been clogged by food waste that carries grease and oil. In recent years, the No. 1 enemy has become disposable cloths, such as baby wipes or mop covers. Although some wipes say they are flushable, sewer officials say the wipes don't break down quickly enough and can clog and damage pump equipment.

The water district has installed a new screening system at its pump station in Westbrook and made other changes in different parts of the regional sewer network, Clements said. But it has not been able to protect all 60 of its pumping stations from wipes, shrimp waste or other items.

''Every time there's a clog, it takes hours to unclog. It's manpower, and if it's off hours -- it's overtime,'' she said. ''We still maintain (that people shouldn't) put anything down there but toilet paper and human waste.''

Shrimp waste was something no one expected.

''It hasn't ever been a problem for us before,'' Clements said. ''The major problem is the antennas. They're pretty sturdy and wiry.''

The shrimp clogs have been limited to downtown Portland and the treatment plant, she said.

''The volume is really excessive, so it would seem it would have to be a business dealing with shrimp,'' Clements said.

A number of downtown companies buy and process fresh shrimp each winter, often removing the heads and shells so the meat can be cooked or sold raw. City officials have been visiting those businesses, hoping to find a missing drain cover or some other simple explanation for the phenomenon.

''We have met with some of the major shrimpers and found them in compliance,'' said Nicole Clegg, spokeswoman for the city. She said the officials are now trying to visit smaller-scale processors.

The owners of Portland's major shrimp processing companies could not be reached for comment Friday.

Clegg said businesses are not allowed to flush such wastes into the sewers without permits, although there is no plan to take any legal action if the problem can be easily fixed, Clegg said.

''Our hope is that we can resolve it,'' she said.

Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at:

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