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'Don’t feed the fatberg,' what are fatbergs and how do they form?

By Amanda Schmidt, AccuWeather staff writer
January 16, 2019, 2:21:22 PM EST

Someone may pour molten chicken fat down a drain, while a neighbor might flush a wet wipe down the toilet. When the two meet in a dank sewer pipe, a baby fatberg is born.

A fatberg forms like a snowball, as wet wipes get flushed down the toilet and fats, oil and grease get thrown down the sink. They all congeal together and gradually form a hard mass known as a fatberg. And when they get large enough, fatbergs can clog sewers entirely, sending raw sewage gushing into the streets.

Fatbergs are more often found in congested, urban areas. London, Belfast, Denver and Melbourne are just a few of the world metropolises that have discovered large fatbergs in recent years.

fatberg 2018

(Photo/South West Water)

However, a fatberg was recently found in a small town in South West England.

On Jan. 8, South West Water workers discovered one of the biggest fatbergs that they had ever seen. It was found in a sewer in the coastal town, Sidmouth, under the esplanade.

The hunk of grime measured more than 64 meters long, or just over 200 feet, and is longer than six back-to-back double-decker buses, according to a press release from South West Water.

Sidmouth fatberg location 2018/19

(Photo/South West Water)

“It is the largest discovered in our service history and will take our sewer team around eight weeks to dissect this monster in exceptionally challenging work conditions,” South West Water’s Director of Wastewater Andrew Roantree said.

The fatberg has had no impact on Sidmouth’s bathing water quality, as it was discovered early enough to reduce the risk of harm.

However, it doesn’t always end this way. Every time a wet wipe is flushed or oil is poured down the drain, there is a risk that these items could cause sewer blockages.

“We tackle dozens of new sewer blockages every day, which adds £4.5 million to bills every year,” the press release reads.

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These potentially monstrous mounds are formed from everything that has been flushed or poured down the sinks that shouldn’t have been.

“If you keep just one new year’s resolution this year, let it be to not pour fats, oil or grease down the drain, or flush wet wipes down the loo (toilet). The consequences can be significant - including sewer flooding in your own home,” Roantree said.

“Put your pipes on a diet and don’t feed the fatberg,” he said.

sidmouth fatberg

(Photo/South West Water)

The removal is due to start on Monday, Feb. 4, but heavy rain could cause delays.

Alongside high-pressure jets and specialized equipment, South West Water sewer workers will endure weeks of manual labor, attacking the fatberg bit by bit with shovels and pickaxes, according to the press release.

Nearby businesses will not be affected by the removal and the esplanade will remain fully accessible with no impact to traffic.

Fatbergs can occur anywhere. They have become an increasingly prevalent and expensive problem.

The United States and United Kingdom report the most fatbergs, engineer Thomas Wallace of University College Dublin said to National Geographic.

Not only do both nations produce copious amounts of fatberg ingredients, but they also have many aging sewer systems ill-equipped to deal with the onslaught of fat and trash from increasing populations.

In New York City, grease causes 71 percent of sewer backups, according to the city’s 2017 State of the Sewers report. And smaller cities aren’t immune, as seen recently in Sidmouth, as well as in Ft. Wayne, Indiana, which has spent $500,000 a year cleaning grease out of sewers, according to National Geographic.

Properly disposing one's fats and trash is key in conquering this growing, monstrous issue.

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