A fatberg discovered in 2018 in a Macomb County sewer interceptor is being used as a teaching tool by Wayne State University researchers.

A fatberg discovered in 2018 in a Macomb County sewer interceptor is being used as a teaching tool by Wayne State University researchers.

Photo provided by Wayne State University


Researchers progressing in fatberg study

Exhibit to debut this November at Michigan Science Center

By: Nick Mordowanec | C&G Newspapers | Published October 1, 2019

 Tracie Baker, assistant professor in WSU’s Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, discusses the fatberg with Macomb County Public Works Commissioner Candice Miller while undergrad students look on.

Tracie Baker, assistant professor in WSU’s Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, discusses the fatberg with Macomb County Public Works Commissioner Candice Miller while undergrad students look on.

Photo provided by Wayne State University

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MACOMB COUNTY — A fatberg discovered in a Macomb County sewer had led to a more introspective look on the subject, courtesy of a pair of Wayne State University researchers.

Barely more than a year ago, Macomb County Public Works Commissioner Candice Miller stood at a podium and discussed how a 100-foot long, 19-ton fatberg was discovered in a sewer 50 feet underground as part of the Lakeshore Interceptor along Interstate 94.

A few months later, Wayne State University researchers acquired an $86,000 National Science Foundation grant that has allowed them to study how fats, oil and greases, or FOGs, lend themselves toward these environmental blobs. It also helps compile a model, aimed to predict future situations when fatbergs might arise — not just in Macomb County, but anywhere.

“We’ve been working very closely with the Macomb County Department of Public Works to investigate the whole fatberg phenomena,” said Carol Miller, professor of civil and environmental engineering and director of Healthy Urban Waters at WSU. “Macomb County has been really helpful, and we have a wealth of information regarding system characters, and data regarding pressure flows of pipes before and after the fatberg.”

Carol Miller works alongside Tracie Baker, assistant professor in WSU’s Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. Their research as part of the grant will continue for about another four months.

Work is being done in two particular areas, Miller said.

First, it’s about better characterizing the physical aspects of the fatberg found in Macomb County and sampling research and data provided by the county in the realm of physical engineering. The other portion involves the chemistry and biology of fatbergs, pursued in the realm of environmental health sciences.

Then comes making the results known to the public — the educational side of all of this. Miller and Baker have fielded interest on fatberg composition and growth from other locations while simultaneously relating that to the accumulation of material normally found in pipe and interceptor systems.

“Although the magnitude of this problem was quite unusual, the problem itself is not terribly unusual,” Miller said.

“In other words, the fatberg is completely removed. Things are working well right now,” she said. “But there is still material people, businesses and industries are passing in the interceptor. We’ve been monitoring that so we have a good handle on the volume that’s been going in that has been changing over time.”

The WSU researchers are also excited to share their findings with the masses. A fatberg exhibit is slated to open in mid-November at the Michigan Science Center in Detroit.

MSC Director of Outreach Charles Gibson said the exhibit will hit “all the marks” of science education: why and how fatbergs form, how they affect the environment and sewer systems, those in fields who utilize resources to combat these behemoths, and how the public can reduce future fatbergs based on what they flush or put in their sinks.

“When we at the Science Center can highlight those different careers and processes and techniques and science methods that come into play to preventing and mediating something like this, it tells a pretty powerful story. … The bigger story is that this is more importantly a restaurant issue, so it’s part of a greater public outreach program,” Gibson said.

Candice Miller said her department is “delighted” that WSU has taken an interest in something that not only occurred in Macomb County, but is also happening all around the country and the world.

These are essentially public health hazards, she said, and everyday people can alleviate them just by the way they discard FOGs, or throw out the multitude of wipes available today, rather than flush them.

“We have to encourage the next generation to understand there are consequences,” Candice Miller said.

She’s encouraging that education. The commissioner has spoken to local groups, her department has created flyers listing do’s and don’ts — which are packaged with municipal water and sewer bills, and she has visited schools to teach children about what happens to underground infrastructure.

At this point, no other fatbergs have been identified in Macomb County. However, the one removed in late 2018 took years to develop.

“It’s really public awareness, and you have to get into the public’s psyche,” she said.

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