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From the Wall Street Journal...
June 4, 2001
Municipal Heart Attack: Illegal Dumping Of Fryer Grease, Fat Leads to
The Sewer-Fat Crisis Stirs a National Stink
Fueled by the fast-food frenzy and an influx of immigrant cooks, America's
appetite for eating out has bloated the national output of a viscous goop
known as restaurant grease -- to three billion pounds a year. Where does
used grease go? Traditionally, into the cauldrons of the rendering industry,
which processes animal castoffs into useful products. But for reasons
ranging from Malaysia's palm-oil boom to Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's crackdown
on New York's garbage Mafia, more goop than ever is ending up in the sewer.
How it wends its way in -- by pipe? by bucket? -- is a matter of culinary
mystery and governmental mystification. Once the goop arrives, the effect is
clearer than mud: Grease and sewage don't mix.
Don Montelli stands over a manhole on another Brooklyn corner -- a
"notorious grease spot," he says, in front of a Chinese take-out. Mr.
Montelli, a high-tech sewer worker, holds a video screen attached by wire to
a robot camera down below. "What you're looking at right now," Mr. Montelli
explains, "is grease down the sewer."
With colonoscopic clarity, the camera shows a pipe with a drippy coating of
fat. Fat won't pollute; it won't corrode or explode. It accretes. Sewer rats
love sewer fat; high protein builds their sex drive. Solids stick in fat.
Slowly, pipes occlude.
Sewage backs up into basements -- or worse, the fat hardens, a chunk breaks
off and rides down the pipe until it jams in the machinery of an underground
floodgate. That, to use a more digestible metaphor, causes a municipal heart
Fat infarctions have struck of late in Honolulu, Columbus, Ohio, and Lake
Placid, N.Y. A grease clot in Cobb County, Ga., recently set off a 600,000
gallon sewage surge into the Chattahoochee River. In January, the U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency sued Los Angeles for allowing 2,000
overflows in the past five years; an EPA audit blamed 41% of them on fat.
New York's sewers run for 6,437 miles. Waste water and storm water mix in
70% of the system. When it rains hard, treatment plants can't cope with the
flow, so regulators open and the mess gushes into rivers and bays. On dry
days, the gates are supposed to stay closed, and do -- except when grease
gums up the works.
With 21,000 places serving food, New York gets 5,000 fat-based backups a
year and several big gum-ups. Its environmental protectors have fingered
greasy-spoon districts as suspects, not just Coney Island and Chinatown, but
the area around Carnegie Hall. New York's greasiest sewers, however, lie in
the section of the borough of Queens called Flushing.
Flushing is solidly Asian and restaurant-intense. Bouquet of deep-fryer
wafts over streets abloom with signage. Crowds push past hole-in-the-wall
stalls; fish and vegetable stands build mountains of perishing perishables.
So much fat gets flushed in Flushing that last year it blocked the sewers 50
times. Three times at the end of 1999, it locked up floodgates and let raw
sewage flush into Flushing River.
"We are subjected to the stench of sewer dirt to the degree that we are
throwing up. This is not to laugh!" So said Julia Harrison, to laughs, at a
special City Hall sewer-fat hearing. Ms. Harrison is Flushing's City Council
member. "Restaurant people have been preached to, given literature, and
still plead ignorance," she said. "It's not ignorance. It's up yours!"
The city's plumbing code requires "grease-generating establishments" to have
grease traps. A grease trap is a box. Greasy water flows into it and slows,
letting the grease rise. The water drains into the sewer and the grease
stays. The MGM Grand in Las Vegas has five 15,000 gallon grease traps;
trucks pump them out. In big cities, traps fit under kitchen floors. They
have to be emptied by hand.
Scooping out a grease trap is a job nobody wants to do after dinner. Often,
nobody does. When a trap fills, greasy water races through it. A Chinese
kitchen with four wok stations needs a 5,000 gallon trap or it may as well
have no trap at all. Lots of places, Chinese and otherwise, don't.
New York has six grease inspectors for 21,000 restaurants. It asks them all
to recycle trap grease, but the city has only one trap-grease recycler. "We
thought this was the future," says Livio Forte of A&L Recycling. It wasn't.
Trap grease is too watery -- expensive to boil down. In a month, A&L
collects only 15,000 gallons of it.
Which recycles the question: Where does the grease go? Forget trap grease --
it's a drop in the can. Most restaurant grease actually comes from deep-fat
fryers. You can't pour gallons of that down the drain. The real issue is:
What happens to the deep fat? Mr. LaGrotta admits he's out of his depth.
"From my understanding," he says, "it has value, but I'm no expert. Better
talk to some people in the business.
We are talking YELLOW GREASE. After Darling centrifuges french-fry
particulates out of restaurant grease, yellow grease results. Once, yellow
grease was animal fat; now, it's vegetable oil. It goes into animal feed,
but has uses in paint, face powder and adhesive tape. With oil costs rising,
some renderers are simply burning it.
Yellow Grease is an international commodity. On the exchanges, it's up
against Brazilian soy oil and Southeast Asian palm oil, not to mention cocoa
butter, Borneo tallow, meadowfoam oil and beeswax. Thanks to Third-World
plantations, global oil-and-fat output has tripled since 1960, to more than
100 million tons a year. With this great grease glut sending prices ever
downward, high-cost old fryer fat can't compete.