Macomb County Public Works sues wipes manufacturers

Local members of Congress urge discontinuation of false advertising

By: Nick Mordowanec | C&G Newspapers | Published June 18, 2020


MACOMB COUNTY — A Macomb County official and three Michigan-based legislators are calling on other federal lawmakers to pass legislation requiring a change in labeling and marketing of “flushable” wipes.

On May 6, Macomb County Public Works Commissioner Candice Miller filed a lawsuit due to said wipes not being biodegradable and causing significant blockage and expense in municipal and regional sewer systems.

The lawsuit mentions nine defendants, all of which manufacture wipes: Dude Products Inc., Nehemiah Manufacturing Co. LLC, Kimberly-Clark Corp., Procter & Gamble Co., Nice-Pak Products Inc., Professional Disposables International Inc., Rockline Industries Inc., S.C. Johnson & Son Inc., and C.B. Fleet Co. Inc.

The companies produce and sell the majority of the wipes in the United States.

In 2018, Miller’s department removed a 19-ton mass of accumulated grease, fats and oils characterized as a “fatberg.” Last year, the department removed a 1-ton “ragball” composed of thousands of wipes clumped together in a county sewer.

Both incidents combined to cost the department about $100,000 to remove.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the MCPWO stated it has been removing upwards of 4,000 pounds of wipes from the Clintondale Pump Station in Clinton Township on a weekly basis — an approximately 330% increase compared to daily life pre-pandemic. That station serves parts of four communities.

“Particularly now, the last thing anyone needs is a major sewer backup,” Miller said in early May. “These wipes are truly the scourge of sewer systems. They become almost like a rope, wrapping themselves around pumps and clogging up sewers, causing enormous problems.”

About two weeks after the lawsuit was filed, Miller called on federal lawmakers to pass legislation associated with the wipes. Her office has led a public education campaign, “Wipes Clog Pipes,” to warn people not to flush such wipes down toilets because of the negative effects on sewer systems.

Her office sent letters to U.S. Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters, as well as U.S. Reps. Paul Mitchell and Andy Levin, urging them to move forward in Congress.

“These problems are seen across the country, and even in other countries around the world,” Miller, a former U.S. congresswoman, said on May 20.

On May 29, MCPWO representative Dan Heaton said that Mitchell did not think legislation was “needed,” but he hoped the others were “more receptive” to the idea.

Earlier this month, Stabenow, Peters and Levin sent a letter asking the Federal Trade Commission to exercise its authority to prevent manufacturers from advertising wipes as “flushable” — a term disputed by wastewater officials.

In their letter, the officials referred to a March 2020 Environmental Protection Agency press release urging Americans to not flush wipes due to the potential harm “not just to wastewater infrastructure, but also to human health.”

“Preventable toilet and sewer backups can pose a threat to human health and present an extra challenge to our water utilities and their workforce,” the EPA stated. “Flushing anything other than toilet paper, including disinfecting wipes, can damage internal plumbing, local sewer systems and septic systems. Fixing these backups is costly and takes time and resources away from ensuring that wastewater management systems are otherwise working properly.”

The officials also cited how, on Nov. 20, 2015, the FTC used its authority to discontinue deceptive advertisements related to wipes as it pertained to a consent order with Nice-Pak Products Inc. — one of the manufacturers named in the Macomb County suit.

“We sincerely appreciate Rep. Levin’s commitment to our environment, which shows that protecting our Great Lakes is a truly bipartisan issue that all Americans should be able to rally behind,” Miller said, referencing Levin due to his representation of Macomb County. “We believe that federal action is the critical piece needed as part of a public campaign to keep wipes out of our sewers and damaging the infrastructure systems that ultimately help protect our local waterways.”

Attorney Joseph Viviano, who is representing Miller and her office in the lawsuit, declined to comment.