Three years after Killeen passed a law that restricts the amount of grease restaurants can put into city sewers, few are meeting the standard.
Of the 255 restaurant grease traps monitored by the city of Killeen, just 49 are listed as compliant with the Fats, Oils and Grease ordinance.
Grease traps, installed underground or under the sink, are designed to filter grease out of wastewater before it enters a sewer.
Every six months, the city tests the wastewater after it leaves the grease trap for contaminants. If a restaurant exceeds the standards set by the ordinance, it will incur expensive monthly fines, called surcharges.
The ordinance was created in 2010, in part, because of a $900,000 fine paid by the city after grease in the city’s wastewater clogged the Bell County Water Control and Improvement District No. 1’s south treatment plant.
According to city data and information from the water district, the law has generated little success at cleaning the sewers of grease.
Meanwhile, the volume of the local restaurant industry’s opposition to the ordinance continues to grow, claiming that the required rates are unattainable and the surcharges hamper economic growth in the city.
The city estimates there are 450 food service providers in Killeen, but not all are in the city’s grease trap database.
While compiling the database, the city started with restaurants whose discharges flow directly into the water district’s south wastewater treatment plant.
Most challenged by the ordinance are the businesses that offer the greasiest products: fast food restaurants.
“We shouldn’t be punished for the kind of business we are in,” said Stan Marcotte, supervising partner of three Killeen Sonic Drive-ins. “We serve what the people want.”
Three months ago, the city added Marcotte’s restaurants to the grease trap database and asked him to build a monitoring well behind each of his restaurant kitchens. Construction of the wells cost $5,000 each.
One week ago, Marcotte received a letter stating that he would have to lower his grease output or face hefty monthly surcharges from the city’s public works department.
One store will be charged $1,200 a month if the numbers do not go down.
Marcotte said a city official inspected the restaurant but offered little advice on how to fix the problem.
“It’s not like we can stop cleaning. It’s not like we can stop washing the floor,” Marcotte said. “It’s at a point we don’t know what else we could do.”
Of the 49 grease traps in the city now up to regulation, a majority were noncompliant at least once since 2010, a city spokesperson confirmed.
Some businesses have found ways to meet the code.
“The city’s goal is compliance,” said Hilary Shine, Killeen spokeswoman. “Working within the standards is in the best interest of the city.”
Average contaminant levels found in city manholes decreased 22 percent in the past two years, according to sewer data released by the city.
During peak times, however, surges of grease, similar to the one that broke the sewer plant three years ago, are still creating problems.
“There has not been a significant amount of reduction in the grease since the ordinance was enacted,” said Jerry Atkinson, general manager of Water Control and Improvement District No. 1.
Atkinson said the district spent $1.3 million on grease disposal and grease-related repairs in the past five years.
Those costs eventually show up in residents’ water bills.
“Grease is a killer of the sewer system,” Atkinson said. “I applaud the city of Killeen for what they are trying to do. Not enough restaurants are in compliance now.”
Atkinson called Killeen’s grease problem a “Texas public health and safety issue.”
“For the safety of the citizens of Killeen and keeping the sewer rates under control, we really do need to get a handle on the grease that is going into our sewers,” Atkinson said.
Several of the local fast food operators, including Marcotte, have pointed to flaws in the method the city uses to test the grease output as the cause of their high surcharges and pledged to pay fees associated with a study to find a more accurate testing method. “I would like to go not just for a cheap sample but go for an accurate sample,” Marcotte said.
The Killeen City Council requested that public works staff try the alternative methods of testing suggested by the restaurant industry and compare the methods to other cities. “City staff is going to keep looking into this, and I’m sure we are going to find a solution,” Mayor Dan Corbin said.