UK’s biggest ever ‘fatberg’ pulled from London sewers

There's been a lurking menace beneath the streets of southwest London these days, caused by the excesses of our throwaway culture, but unlike the numerous horror movies that have played upon this theme, this one is actually true.

Workers with Thames Water discovered an enormous, 15-ton blob of congealed fat mixed with baby wipes clogging up the sewers beneath London Road, in Kingston, Surrey (a suburb of London) last week, and the size of this blob has earned it the nickname 'fatberg'.

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"While we've removed greater volumes of fat from under central London in the past, we've never seen a single, congealed lump of lard this big clogging our sewers before," said Gordon Hailwood, waste contracts supervisor for Thames Water, according to a statement. "Given we've got the biggest sewers and this is the biggest fatberg we've encountered, we reckon it has to be the biggest such berg in British history."

Also, it's a good thing they found it when they did. It apparently had collected so thick in the pipe that flow through the affected area was reduced to just five percent of normal.

"The sewer was almost completely clogged with over 15 tonnes of fat," said Hailwood. "If we hadn't discovered it in time, raw sewage could have started spurting out of manholes across the whole of Kingston."

Closed-circuit TV from the survey crew shows some of the extent of the clog:

According to the Thames Water statement, the blockage, which damaged about 20 metres of pipe under London Road, between Cambridge Rd and Coombe Rd, was as big as a bus, and was entirely made up of food fat that had been poured down the drain and baby wipes that were flushed down the toilet. A local waste management company, called CountyClean Environmental Services, removed the fatberg, and it will take roughly the next six weeks to repair the damage.

As for the blob itself, rather than just being dumped in a landfill, it will apparently be recycled.

"We recycle everything that we remove — the water is extracted and the remaining fats and oils are turned into products like soap, biodiesel and fuel," a CountyClean spokesman told the Associated Free Press.

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According to an article from the Daily Mail from January of this year, workers clear out around 1,000 tons of these fatty clogs from London sewers every year, at an annual cost of around £12 million (around $19 million Cdn).

Given that this and clogs like it are caused by a combination of such common things, this can't be something isolated only to London or the UK. I've seen plenty of those commercials on TV pointing out how clogged up our dishwashers can be just from congealed food and grease, and baby wipes seem to be pretty ubiquitous these days, so I certainly hope there aren't similar menaces lurking beneath the streets of our major cities here in Canada. I'd hate to be walking down the streets of Toronto and get a really nasty surprise coming shooting up from the manhole covers.

Hailwood has wise words about the issue, though: "Homes and businesses need to change their ways, when it comes to fat and wipes, please remember: 'Bin it – don't block it.'"

(Photo and video courtesy: Thames Water)

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