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Sending grease down drain will get more costly

Businesses will pay extra fees for fatty discharges
by: Courtesy of Portland Bureau of Environmental Services 
Fat, oil and grease discharged by a North Portland fast-food restaurant caused this sewer backup last year. The city will start charging restaurants more for their sewer service next year to prevent this kind of trouble.

The inside of a sewer pipe is not a pretty sight.

Even less attractive is a sewer pipe clogged with fat, oil and grease - especially when that causes a sewage backup at uphill homes and businesses.

To reduce backups, and charge the entities that are causing costly maintenance of the city sewer system, the Portland Bureau of Environmental Services is readying a new surcharge.

It could mean an extra $20 to $60 monthly cost for restaurants, says Marveita Redding, the bureau's pollution prevention services group manager, or a 30 percent increase for large grocery stores with delis and bakeries. Some establishments also may be asked to install a grease trap, which can cost $1,500 to $4,000. Plus, they may be required to pay periodic cleanup fees, or as much as $10,000 for a large grease interceptor.

In all, some 2,500 to 3,000 food-related businesses may be assessed for the cost of their fat, oil and grease discharges, says Matt Criblez, environmental compliance manager for the city bureau.

Before limited-government and anti-tax types scream about the unwarranted long arm of the city, consider this: The bureau says its plan is revenue-neutral.

That means it won't raise any additional money. Rather, the extra sewer charges paid by those causing extra stress on the city sewer system could reduce bills for everyone else, at least for the base sewer rate, by 3 to 4 percent, Criblez says.

Fats, oil and grease often act as a glue with other material obstructing sewer pipes, such as construction debris going down the storm drain or roots protruding into the sewer lines. That gunk gets into the city sewage treatment plant 'and can gum up the works,' Criblez says.

Even worse is what happens to those who live uphill on the sewer line when the line gets clogged. 'All of the sewage can back up into your basement or your business,' Redding says.

Fats, oil and grease are usually one of the top causes of sewer backups, along with vandalism, aggressive tree roots and sediment from storm drains.

Current practice

The Bureau of Environmental Services has a detailed map of past sewer backups, and areas where sewers are prone to get clogged. Those 'grease management' areas are targeted for more regular sewer cleanings. The bureau also employs cameras inside the sewer pipes to detect blockages in areas where clogging is expected. Clogged pipes are then 'mucked out.'

The bureau already charges 70 large emitters of fat, oil and grease for their industrial-level discharges, using a permit system. An example would be Franz Bakery.

But restaurants and groceries with delis and bakeries, which tend to have lower levels of discharges, pay the same sewer rate as those companies that aren't putting extra stress on the sewer system.

That's about to change.

Starting next January, the city expects to phase in the new rate system, Redding says.

Extra sewer charges for heavy dischargers of fat, oil and grease are not uncommon elsewhere around the country, or even in Oregon.

Criblez says he found 20 to 30 cities on the West Coast with some sort of surcharge program, including Gresham, Corvallis and Eugene.

There's no formal name for the bureau's surcharge program yet, though it has been using the acronym FOG, which stands for fats, oil and grease.

Bureau managers says Portland is rather late to adding the surcharge compared to other cities, but they promise to improve on systems used elsewhere. If companies change their behavior, for example, they can cut the extra fees.

One example: The bureau will encourage restaurants and groceries to recycle the fat, oil and grease, so they don't go down the sewer system.

'We offer that as an incentive, so you'd not be subject to any additional charges,' Redding says.

The new surcharge system and incentives will mesh with other city plans to introduce curbside composting in Portland, Criblez says.

In the long run, the goal is to educate more people about the impact of stuff they put into the city sewer system, Redding says.

'The sewer system,' she says, 'is not a dump.'