MONTEREY PARK — City officials have ordered a crackdown on restaurant operators who dump grease into the sewer system, blaming the grease for clogging lines and causing sewage overflows into neighboring businesses.
City Councilman Barry L. Hatch said there have been at least five incidents in recent months in which sewer lines were blocked by grease, leading to overflows.
"I see this as a very serious situation," Hatch said. "Raw sewage has inundated our city five times. . . . The health of our residents is at stake."
Henry Terashita, community development director, said the problem stems from a proliferation of restaurants in Monterey Park and their failure to install and maintain devices to intercept and remove grease before discharging sewage into the public system.
Congeals in Cold Water
"The grease gets into sewers, mixes with cold water and congeals, causing a backup," he said.
A preponderance of Chinese restaurants contributes to the problem, Terashita said, because Chinese cuisine, with its emphasis on pork and duck, generates more animal fat than most other cooking.
"We used to have two or three Chinese restaurants in the whole city," Terashita said. "Now we have close to 100."
City Engineer Eduard Schroder said the city has ordered 150 food establishments, from bakeries to pizza parlors to full-scale restaurants, to comply with the grease interceptor regulations.
He said 81 have complied, 31 are endeavoring to meet the requirements and 38 have failed to comply, some arguing that they cannot afford to because their buildings and equipment were damaged in last month's earthquake.
Schroder said grease interceptors cost $7,000 to $10,000. They are installed in the sewer line and use gravity to separate the grease, which rises to the top and is drawn off. The interceptors must be cleaned every 30 to 90 days, he said.
The city has issued citations to 24 businesses for violating the grease interceptor requirement. Shroder said the judge hearing the cases in Alhambra Municipal Court has given business owners 60 days to comply. Businesses that fail to comply could face fines of up to $100 a day.
Schroder told the City Council this week that the city is trying to be flexible with business owners who say they cannot afford to install grease traps, but that it also must protect its sewer lines.
Hatch said the city should treat the problem as an emergency and give it top priority.
"This is something as disastrous as the earthquake," Hatch said. "Why don't we close down some of these businesses?"
Hatch suggested that the city "set up an emergency command" to deal with the problem.
David Bentz, interim city manager, said the city staff has "gotten the message" to move swiftly and will give the matter high priority.
Mayor Cam Briglio cautioned against blaming all restaurants for the problems of a few. "The sad part is when one restaurant is bad, we blame 80," he said.
Hatch said the city has already been forced to pay claims to businesses damaged by sewage backups.
The city has paid a total of $5,200 to a building owner and two businesses to compensate them for cleanup expenses they incurred when sewers backed up in June. Fire Chief James Page said grease from a nearby restaurant had clogged the line.
Page said another sewage backup attributed to restaurant grease forced the closure of four or five businesses for several hours last week in a shopping center at Atlantic Boulevard and Garvey Avenue. In this case, the restaurant had a grease interceptor but neglected to clean it out.
Page said his department was given the task of inspecting restaurants to make sure they comply with the grease disposal requirements two months ago and is making progress in enforcing the regulations.
He said the city sewer system is adequate to handle its load if restaurants obey the law. With regular inspections, he said, "we can solve the problem."