As municipal disasters go, the illegal dumping of insulation materials in the Orem sewage system, which has vexed city officials in recent months, isn’t going to create a public health crisis.
Nevertheless, it is an expensive and troubling nuisance. The dumping, most likely from someone in the construction industry, began six months ago and has cost the city an estimated $75,000 to $90,000 to clean, according to Orem city spokesman Kevin Downs. That’s money above what city leaders had budgeted for wastewater treatment problems.
While the last dumping came Dec. 13, city officials say it is too early to determine whether the culprit has gotten the word and voluntarily ceased. But during this at least temporary lull, it’s helpful to ponder some lessons learned so far.
The first is that the nature of investigations has changed in the 21st century. Orem officials deserve praise for recognizing this. Rather than just running a routine police investigation, they have not only used traditional and social media to raise awareness but they've also issued clever T-shirts that read, “Phantom Dumper: seeping while you're sleeping.” The city is currently offering a $2,500 reward for information leading to an arrest and conviction.
If the dumping continues, the perpetrator is either knowingly breaking the law or remarkably disconnected from the world at-large.
The second lesson is that obnoxious behavior sometimes brings positive benefits. In this case, the publicity the city generated has led many construction companies and other industrial concerns to contact the city for clarification as to how properly to dispose of waste.
The city spokesman told us that they more often deal with smaller nuisances in its wastewater system. This unexpected opportunity for public education, they hope, will reduce those problems, at least for a time. In this case, proper disposal would cost no more than entry into a landfill.
The third lesson is that sewage systems are vulnerable. Officials believe whoever is dumping this material is removing a manhole cover to do it. Orem, a city of just under 100,000 people, has more than 6,000 manhole covers.
Cities rely on the goodwill of law-abiding residents to maintain order, and few things are more important in a city than a properly functioning sewage system. Patrolling all manhole covers, even with drones, is probably unfeasible.
Officials have examined the material and determined it is some type of insulation made from recycled paper. It has come into the system in such large quantities that extra manpower has been required to remove it with large vacuuming equipment.
Left unchecked, it would overwhelm the wastewater treatment that ultimately discharges newly cleaned water into Utah Lake. But even after it has been removed, its impact will have hastened wear and tear on equipment.
In recent years, alarms have been raised over the vulnerabilities of public utilities and their susceptibility to terrorism. Surely, this isn’t an example of that. It’s simply an irritating problem, most likely caused in ignorance, in a growing, but otherwise orderly city.
But its lessons can be instructive to a variety of contexts.