OREM — When Lawrence Burton saw the brown gunk frothing to the surface at Orem's sewage treatment plant this week, the city water reclamation manager let out a sigh:
"Here we go again."
For the past five months, the so-called "Phantom Dumper" has been at large, disposing bulk amounts of a strange sludge, clogging the Orem's sewer system and so far costing the city about $60,000 in labor.
The individual, or perhaps a business, has been dumping a mysterious, paperlike product that Orem officials haven't yet been able to identify, even though they've sent samples to laboratories. Each cleanup costs about $3,300 in man hours and sets crews back from their regular maintenance schedule.
Now, after attempts to track down the culprit have gone unsuccessful for months — despite a $2,500 reward offer — city officials are getting creative.
Public works crew members and other city employees have started wearing T-shirts with a Grim Reaper-like figure looming over a hose stuffed down a manhole. The shirt reads: "The Phantom Dumper," along with the phrase "seeping while you're sleeping."
Burton said city officials are determined to draw more public attention to the issue. They hope to either inform a perhaps unaware business that they've been wreaking havoc on the city's sewage system, or to draft help in catching a culprit who may be trying to skirt regulations and avoid a more expensive disposal.
Burton said he hopes the "Phantom Dumper" is actually a person who's acting out of ignorance. But because of the frequency, bulk and odd nature of the product — something similar to insulation but ground down to fibers thinner than human hair — Burton said he has "a hard time believing it's being done innocently."
"I can't imagine anyone producing that in their home," he said, adding that businesses are aware of Orem's regulations and are supposed to get approval for substances other than usual waste.
Assistant city manager Steven Downs said it's been difficult to pinpoint the dumping site because there are more than 6,000 manholes in the city, but crews have placed sampling devices throughout the system to help narrow down possibilities.
"Little by little we're climbing through the veins of the sewer system to find the entry point," Downs said.
The city eventually will figure out the source, Burton said, but that could take weeks without the public's help.
But Burton was optimistic Thursday. The city already has received several "promising" tips this week, he said.
Dumping the material into the city's system could amount to a class B misdemeanor, with fines as high as $1,000 per day.
Downs said the city is conducting its own investigation, and police will get involved if it is determined to be a crime.
"We're not trying to go and make an arrest, but ultimately we just want it to stop," he said. "We also want to make sure the culprit is paying the cost that's been accrued, not the ratepayers in the city."
Tips can be submitted at orem.org.