To such well-known threats to the health of the Chesapeake Bay as nitrogen from farm fertilizers and runoff brought on by suburban sprawl, add a less-obvious danger: bacon grease.
Homeowners who dump fat down the kitchen drain account for a growing share of sewage system overflows throughout Maryland. Most are minor, but grease buildup in a sewer line was blamed for a spill of more than a half-million gallons into woods next to the Patuxent River in Howard County this year.
Yesterday, officials gathered on the banks of the Little Patuxent in Ellicott City's Centennial Park to call on cooks to be more careful.
"We have all these major bay restoration efforts under way, but we're not going to get to the goal without all these small everyday actions that have a cumulative impact," said Shari T. Wilson, secretary of the state Department of the Environment.
As the state, for example, looks for ways to improve the effect of the sewage treatment plants in the region that handle 95 percent of the treated water that flows into the bay, officials say keeping grease out of drains in households and restaurants can play an important role.
"We get the question all the time: 'What can I do to make a difference?'" Wilson said. "Every little bit counts."
Local governments across the country also face the grease dilemma, said Linda Kelly, communications director for the Water Environment Federation. The nonprofit organization, based in Alexandria, Va., provides information and education to water quality professionals and works with about 16,000 municipal utilities nationwide.
"Fats, oils and grease is one of the topics we spend a lot of time on," Kelly said.
In many cases, sewage spills, especially major ones, happen quickly, the result of heavy rain flooding the lines, debris causing blockages, or power failures to pumps.
But backups caused by grease occur over time, officials said. When poured down the sink, grease can stick to household and sewer pipes. Eventually, it can build up and block the pipe.
In the first three months of this year, about half of the 200 sewer line overflows reported across Maryland were caused by grease, state officials said yesterday. That was the case with the large overflow in Howard County that was discovered on a Friday evening in January heading into a holiday weekend. After 22 hours of overflow, about 575,000 gallons had spilled into woods near the Patuxent River in North Laurel.
With a relatively younger sewage infrastructure, Howard County might have less of a problem than older jurisdictions, officials said. Baltimore's problems are more related to century-old pipes that are deteriorating, but grease poured down drains in restaurants and homes contributes, too, Wilson said.
Howard County's effort to bring attention to grease is among other environmental initiatives being undertaken there, including boosting recycling and advocating for buildings that conserve energy and use recycled materials.
Combating grease is viewed as an extension of that effort, said County Executive Ken Ulman.
"We can't forget about the basics - the things we just don't think that much about," Ulman said.
Grease should be put it in a jar or a metal can until it solidifies and be disposed of in the trash, Gerwin said.
The landfill in Howard County accepts vegetable-based cooking oil from residents for recycling at the county's Alpha Ridge landfill. Used cooking oil can be recycled into industrial fuel, soap, cosmetics and poultry feed.
In some cases, homeowners take actions that are well-intended but don't work, such as mixing grease with hot water and soap before flushing it down the drain.
"As soon as that water meets other water and the grease cools off, that grease turns back hard," said Kelly of the Water Environment Federation. "That can back up into the home or the entire subdivision or area."
Ulman compared the effect of grease on the sewage system to what fats and oils can do to the human body. County Health Officer Dr. Peter L. Beilenson said overflows often have "literally stomach-turning effects" for swimmers, bathers and waders. Those effects come from bacteria and viruses released into water and the toxic metals that get into fish.
Restaurants have the same problem but different techniques for handling grease. They are required to have grease traps that divert the material from the sewer system, said Bert Nixon, director of Howard's Bureau of Environmental Health.
The grease is collected in barrels and transferred to rendering companies. If a grease blockage is traced to a restaurant, the county conducts an inspection and orders a cleanup, he said.
In the case of restaurants, systems often clog because of lack of maintenance, Kelly said.
"The restaurants are a huge issue," she said.
Butter and margarine
WHAT CAN BE DONE:
Never pour grease down sink drains, garbage disposals or toilets.
Scrape grease and food scraps from dishes and cooking surfaces into a container or the trash for disposal.
Put strainers in sink drains to catch food scraps and other solids.
Source: Water Environment Federation
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