All clogged up

Grease is fine to cook with, but keep it out of the sewer

Inspector Chester Gudewicz chased after his suspect for six months. When his informant gave him the when’s and where’s, Gudewicz was on patrol.

His stakeouts lasted hours, and yet Gudewicz never caught the criminal in the act.

But he saw his adversaries’ handiwork: pipes so clogged with restaurant grease that sewage erupted from manholes and ran raw into pristine streams.

As an inspector for DeKalb County’s Water and Sewer Compliance Program, Gudewicz’s job is to bust companies that shoot restaurant grease directly into the county’s sewer lines. They’re supposed to collect the grease and take it to a licensed treatment plant.

A typical dump job goes like this: A hauler pumps grease from a restaurant into the tank on his truck. When the tank gets full, the driver finds a dead-end street, pops open the manhole, shoves a hose into the opening, and lets loose the grease he collected.

For the hauler, it’s a heck of a lot easier than driving to another county. There are no grease collection or treatment sites in DeKalb.

It also saves the company that processes the grease, which is often the same company that collects it, the hassle and expense of having to clean it up.

But for DeKalb — for all counties, really — the dump jobs are incredibly expensive. Most metro counties pay more than $100,000 a year in fines for sewer spills. And according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, illegally dumped restaurant grease causes 50 percent to 70 percent of all sewer overflows.

“I liken [grease] to arterial sclerosis, where you just get fat congealed to the walls of your arteries. It’s premature aging of sewer systems,” says Glenn Dowling of the Association County Commissioners of Georgia.

Besides the financial side of grease dumping, sewer overflows decimate aquatic life in entire sections of rivers, streams and creeks. Overflows also cause levels of fecal bacteria — which cause pink eye, diarrhea, nausea and nose, throat and ear infections — to rise well above safe limits.

Gudewicz suspects that half of the 30 or so grease haulers that operate in DeKalb County regularly dump their loads illegally.

“I would say that it’s a daily activity due to the fact that it’s not profitable for these companies to process it correctly,” he says.

One reason dumping is so rampant is because the grease hauling industry isn’t hampered by much regulation.

The state Environmental Protection Division only regulates sewer treatment plants, which is where the grease ends up after it’s been illegally dumped. The EPA handles big-picture parts of the problem; it sets the limits of how much pollution a stream can take before it’s declared unsafe, for example.

Enforcement is ultimately left up to counties, where the focus has only just begun to shift toward stopping the problem on the front end, instead of correcting the issue at the back end in sewer treatment plants.

But Gudewicz helped convince Rep. Stan Watson, D-Decatur, to introduce a bill that could bring law and order to the outlaw grease hauling industry. If it passes, and it’s likely given the broad support behind it, the bill would require grease producers to track how much grease they hand over to the haulers. Haulers then would have to track how much grease they hand over to the processors, and the processors would have to track how much grease they process. Fines for violators are set at $2,500.

Lobbyists for counties are behind the bill. So are lobbyists for cities and environmental groups.

“If you stop that illegal dumping and create a proper process [to dispose of the grease], you extend the life of your sewer system,” says Dowling. “And the bottom line is the taxpayers don’t have to pay for maintenance and work on that system caused by illegal dumping,” he says.

As for the dumper that got away, don’t blame Gudewicz. At the time, he was one of the two inspectors DeKalb County employed (there are now four). That’s not a fair matchup considering there are 7,500 manholes in the county.