A growing plumbing problem

Text by Bavani M, Retrieved from The Star Online

Experts warn that used oil and fat blatantly poured into drains by restaurants can cause burst pipes, flash floods and even sinkholes

THOUSANDS of kilometres of ageing water and sewerage pipes in Kuala Lumpur are under threat from a new enemy from above ground — fat, oil and grease or simply known to the authorities as FOG.

The leftover curries and oil from deepfried chicken and fish being poured down drains by restaurant owners in the city is causing taxpayers billions to clean up and remedy.

LA21 secretariat and coordinator A. Ghani Mohamed, who is also section head for Indah Water Konsortium (IWK) Kuala Lumpur and Putrajaya pipelines network, said restaurant operators’ apathy in installing and maintaining grease traps and persistently pouring leftover FOG into the sink and drains is not only stressing the brittle pipes but contributing to the pollution of rivers.

Apathy is the enemy

“If this lackadaisical attitude of theirs does not stop, it is only going to get worse and Kuala Lumpur City Hall (DBKL) is going to have a much bigger problem on its hands in the future,” said Ghani.

“All that oil and grease will stick to the pipes and mixing with materials like polystyrene and plastic waste and they will eventually harden and block the flow of water.

“In the long run, the blockage will cause a massive backflow such as what happened in Jalan Scott, Brickfields, last Saturday,” he said.

“A backflow is just one of the problems.

The added stress oil and grease cause to our ageing reticulation system will result in broken pipes, leakages and sinking manholes.

“It will be havoc if a flashflood occurred on top of that,” he commented.

“All these problems cost money and time to fix and those who are contributing to this mess must be held accountable,” he said.

Alam Flora officers cleaning Kuala Lumpur’s drains concur with Ghani.

“It’s a nightmare,” said one of the workers who cleaned up the spillover in Jalan Scott.

“I am not exaggerating here, we pulled out more than 20 bags full of FOG and there was still more to clear,” said the worker.

Nightmare on Scott Road

On Saturday, the back lanes around Jalan Scott, which is home to about 10 restaurants, were besieged by overflowing wastewater due to backflow from clogged drains. Wastewater spilled out of drains, bringing with it oil, grease and dead rodents to the surface.

Frustrated devotees at the Sree Veera Hanuman Temple in Jalan Scott, who could not bear the stench of rotting food overflowing from the drains, begged temple authorities to solve the problem.

It took eight workers from the temple to clean up the mess created by the restaurant operators.

“We started at 6pm and worked until 9pm, when we realised that we could not stop the backflow,” said one of the workers who did wish to be identified. “We were exhausted and the rubbish and oil just kept coming out (of the drains), we gave up shortly after. We only volunteered because the stench of rotting food emanating from the drains was becoming a nuisance to the devotees,” he said, adding that restaurant operators merely watched and did nothing to help despite knowing they contributed to the mess.

According to a temple staff, apart from the stench, the rat population has tripled in the past one year due to the leftover food thrown into drains.

“We spend about RM380 a month for pest control. It used to be a four times a year, but we do it every month now due to the overwhelming rat population,” he said.

A devotee, who identified herself as Solai Amma, said she slipped and fell on the road a few weeks ago because of grease on the road.

“Thank goodness I did not suffer injuries more serious than bruises,” said the 60-year-old from Brickfields.

Crackdown on errant eateries

DBKL Health and Environment Department director Dr Hayati Abdullah said, “No more second chances for them (restaurant operators).

“We have the full backing of the Federal Territories Minister and mayor on this and they (operators) cannot claim ignorance about the rules and regulations,” she said.

According to Hayati, restaurants in the capital city have been informed and updated on the usage of grease traps since 2005 when Housing and Local Government Ministry made it mandatory for restaurants to install grease traps.

“Some did but many did not do it. Some restaurant operators made a show of cleaning their grease traps regularly for a short while but that did not last long.

“Some restaurants installed grease traps just for display, because their workers continued to wash and dump their waste into drains,” she added.

Hayati elaborated that in 2013, DBKL tightened the ruling by including a clause in their by-laws whereby eateries that did not have a functioning grease trap would not get their premises licence renewed.

This means that businesses without a functioning grease trap are deemed illegal.

“Again, operators made some effort at the start but soon after their licences were renewed, they usually stop cleaning and maintaining the grease traps,” she said.

No more excuses

To further compel restaurateurs, DBKL now imposes an additional fee of RM1,500 for the maintenance of the grease traps, which is tied to their business licence.

Prior to this, restaurant owners paid RM400 for premises licence and RM200 to RM600 (depending on the size) for signboard licence.

This grease trap fee is not applicable to hotels, complexes and food courts.

Hayati said restaurants with licences that were about to expire, would get their licence renewed only if their grease traps were functioning properly.

“Contractors will carry out maintenance work three times a month and DBKL will bill the restaurants for the work; the visits will put operators on their toes.

Our enforcement officers will also monitor them. They will visit the premises again a few weeks before the licence is due to expire, examine the condition of the grease trap and the drains surrounding the premises and determine whether to allow them continue to operate,” she added.

Fee too steep

On complaints from eateries that RM1,500 was too expensive, Hayati said it worked to only RM125 a month.

“And if you break it down further it is a mere RM4.10 a day! It is cheaper than a plate of mee goreng these days.

“Some restaurant operators rake in hundreds of thousands of ringgit in profit annually, so RM125 a month is a measly sum for them,” she said.

Ghani said taxpayers had been forced to foot the bill every time drains got clogged.

“It can cost as much as RM1,000 to clear a blockage using a high-powered water jet from IWK.

“And in the case of Jalan Scott blockage, that will require massive clean-up work that will probably last for days and cost thousands of ringgit.”

Brickfields is one of the areas that reports high incidences of burst pipes, sinkholes and backflows caused by FOG.

Alam Flora and IWK workers who clean manholes and drains in Kuala Lumpur once a month said that Brickfields, Bukit Bintang, Masjid India, Kepong and Jalan Kelang Lama accounted for more than 50% of backflow cases due to grease.

“It is actually not part of our responsibility to clean up grease but it is what we have been forced to do regularly,” said a worker who did not want to be named for fear of receiving backlash from food operators.

“Now that the laws are in place, we hope that enforcement will come next. It is all about enforcement,” the worker added.