Water Industry News

The true cost of birth control: $18.09 a condom
United Water Pays up to $68/hour for condom catchers

By Steve Schultze and Marie Rhode


May 12, 2005
After spending more than $1.8 million for a temporary system to catch stray condoms slipping through the Jones Island sewage treatment plant - including having a full-time worker at $52.15 an hour manually skimming errant condoms from the final wastewater treatment tanks - the sewerage district is declaring its effluent condom-free.

Pretty much, anyway.

"We are fairly confident we are capturing a majority" of the spent condoms before they can reach the Milwaukee Harbor and Lake Michigan, said Bill Graffin, spokesman for the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District.

"If we need to take more steps, we don't know what they would be," he said.

Condoms are notoriously difficult to capture completely at sewage treatment plants, MMSD officials said. However, Peter Swenson, a regional official with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said the problem is rare.

The quest for better condom control dates back to April 29, 2003, when a local fisherman reported seeing what he called a "slick" of thousands of condoms floating in the lake following a heavy rainstorm. MMSD officials initially discounted the story, suggesting the shiny objects the fisherman reported must have been alewives - a small fish.

But with a public outcry and a nudge from Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager, the district sprang into action.

First, a single laborer armed with a swimming pool skimmer was posted at the chlorine tanks at Jones Island to nab condoms that survived earlier phases of screening at the plant. To date, the effort has yielded 14,020 stubborn condoms scooped from the final sewage treatment soup over 551 days. Average daily yield: 25.4 condoms, according to the district.
$18.09 a condom

The district couldn't provide full costs of the effort. But the final 424 days of condom scooping cost $184,400 for the 10,196condoms collected during that period, which ended Feb. 6. That comes to a per-condom collection cost of $18.09.

The work was done weekdays by union laborers under a subcontract with MMSD's private operator, United Water Services. Those workers were paid $23.19 an hour. However, United Water charged MMSD $52.15 an hour, a figure that included costs of fringe benefits and a 15% markup for profit and administrative fees.

On weekends, United Water employees scooped condoms at the plant. They were paid overtime - $51.06 an hour for Saturdays and $68.06 Sundays.

The subcontract was done because United Water didn't have enough workers on staff to do it, said John Cheslik, United Water's manager of Milwaukee operations. Cheslik and MMSD officials said that although the costs seem high, they reflect the requirement in MMSD's contract with United Water that locally prevailing wages are paid for sewerage district work.

State Rep. Pedro Colón, a member of the commission that oversees MMSD, said a cheaper alternative for the job should have been used.

"It's just a lot of money," said Colón, a Milwaukee Democrat. "This is in the category of unacceptable."

The manual scooping was supplemented during summer months of 2003 and 2004, when MMSD also had the crew of the Pelagos, the district's 43-foot research boat, fishing for condoms that made it through the plant and into the harbor. That yielded another 1,722 condoms in 220 days of intermittent harbor patrol. Cost figures weren't available for that endeavor.
Nets also used

An elaborate fabricated system of condom-catching nets - which themselves resemble giant condoms - also was approved and installed early last year at Jones Island at a cost of $1.5 million. Other costs, including replacement nets, have added another $120,000 to the project.

The net system installed in the plant was supposed to end the manual condom catching effort, but the system blew out when it got its first big test after last May's rainstorms. The device, euphemistically dubbed the "floatables removal project" by MMSD, was rehabilitated, reinstalled and adjusted by April.

There's a downside: The 24 giant nets used to snag condoms clog with algae and other debris, requiring them to be changed every two or three weeks. Pulling up the old nets, which when sopping wet can weigh more than 800 pounds, requires use of a truck-mounted crane and a crew of three.

District officials acknowledge that the net system is meant as only a short-term fix. The better solution attacks what some have said is the root cause of the condom problem at Jones Island: the "bar screens" that act as a sieve at the front of the plant, where raw sewage enters.

The screens in place now were installed in the 1980s and have three-quarter-inch spacing - too big to stop all the condoms that are flushed, officials said. Replacing them with more desirable bar screens with quarter-inch spacing carries a hefty price tag, $23 million. The job isn't expected to be completed until 2009.

Sewerage district officials are bracing for the first major test of the condom netting system, with up to 2 inches of rain forecast by tonight, including Thursday's rain. District officials urged everyone in the metropolitan area to reduce water use by at least 10 gallons.

Suggestions include taking short showers instead of baths, turning off water while brushing teeth or shaving, putting off doing the laundry and fixing leaky toilets and faucets.