Local government to fund sludge fight

After the recent debacle in Washington surrounding the deficit and the debt ceiling, it’s easy to think that all government is ineffective and/or corrupt and/or run by spineless chuckleheads.

But the passage of a measure Monday night by my hometown’s city council demonstrates that some agencies survive, even thrive, wading in the knee-deep muck and grime that is the people’s business.

Months of preliminary work by a Rock Hill official has resulted in the “Fats, Oils and Grease Initiative,” passed by a vote of 5-1 at this week’s meeting. The measure will guarantee that the city inspects grease traps at the area’s food-service establishments to make sure gunk is stopped before it invades the sewer.

Assistant city manager Jimmy Bagley has spent much of 2011 working with utilities and other departments on the project. He presented his findings to the council during a workshop in April, then followed up with weeks of heavy lobbying to drum up support for the new regulation.

A grease trap is a plumbing device used to intercept most greases and other repulsive semi-solids before they enter the wastewater system. When traps are not properly maintained, fats and oils get into the sewer lines. Pipes that were once 8 inches in diameter can rapidly be clogged to only 4 inches.

“The cold grease begins to clog and get hard,” Bagley told the council. “As soon as it hits a pipe or anything in the line that’s an obstruction, it stops up. Then you get a back-up, or manholes overflow, or it goes back into people’s homes.”

While elsewhere the nation’s infrastructure crumbles in the face of Tea Party-inspired frugality, South Carolina’s fifth-largest city is tackling needed maintenance head-on.

But not before several of the council’s conservatives asked some tough questions.

Council member Kevin Sutton reluctantly agreed to vote for the ordinance, despite the government intrusion it might mean for local businesses. Councilman John Black could not be convinced that keeping revolting sludge out of citizens’ homes was a priority, and cast the sole vote against the proposal.

The state Department of Health requires any establishment generating wastewater containing fats, oils or grease to have and maintain a grease trap. However, there is no enforcement provision.

It’s a bit like having laws against murder, but no police force to enforce them. Except that rotting, coagulated lard smells slightly worse than the decomposing bodies that would litter the landscape under a small-government system of law enforcement.

During the April session, several members expressed concern about the cost to businesses of the grease traps. Assistant manager Bagley pointed out that all local businesses already have the traps; they would just have to be working.

“Oh,” said one councilman at the time.

The new ordinance goes into effect in five months (if all Rock Hillians haven’t abandoned their increasingly repellent hometown by then). It will place fines on non-complying restaurants; a first re-inspection would cost $250 and a second one would run $500.

A full-time staff member will be hired to conduct up to 25 inspections a week, eventually getting to all 400 city establishments. No word yet if this job opening has been posted, nor if any of the county’s 20% unemployed work force will step forward to take a job as sickening as this one.

Conservatives surprisingly opted not to allow free-market forces to clean up the grease traps. Some libertarians may have suggested that diners not patronize offending restaurants until they made their own individual inspections and were assured that organic mire was being kept in check. Only then would they return to their seats and enjoy their appetizers.

Bagley said he hoped the ordinance would achieve three goals: education, inspection and enforcement.

“It allows us to participate in programs to let folks know that on a residential level, they can do their part as well,” Bagley said.

One of the main suggestions he had for residents is that they too refrain from pouring grease down their sinks.

“If everybody does their part, hopefully it’ll all fall into place,” he said.

“They’re asking private citizens to be responsible by not dumping shit into the city sewers?” a local Tea Party representative was expected to ask. “Americans should have the freedom to behave like animals in their own homes if they want to. As long as it doesn’t involve extramarital sex.”

Sludge and shit

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