Jun. 20

Original Source: WAMU 88.5

Marijuana. Guns. Assisted suicide. Those are all issues that have prompted Congress to try and overrule local laws in D.C. Now there’s a new flashpoint: flushable wet wipes.

At least one congressional Republican is considering a measure to stop a new D.C. law that regulates when woven wet wipes — like the ones adults use in the bathroom, or baby wipes — can be marketed as being flushable.

The bill, which passed the D.C. Council late last year and became law in March, would require that standards be set before a wipe can be advertised as being flushable, and also mandate that any other wipes feature prominent warnings that they should not be flushed.

Proponents of the bill — including D.C. Water, the city’s water utility — say the standards are needed because most wet wipes do not break down when flushed, causing stoppages in the sewer system. Each one can cost between $50,000 and $100,000 to fix, according to officials at D.C. Water. The head of the agency, George Hawkins, last fall delivered graphic testimony, complete with photos, about how the wipes combine with grease to create “fatbergs” that clog city pipes.

But the wet-wipe industry — big wipe, colloquially, or formally the Association of Nonwoven Fabrics Industry, INDA — forcefully argued against the bill at the time, saying it was unnecessary since the industry has set its own flushability standards. It has now taken its complaints directly to Capitol Hill, which has final say over any bill passed by the Council and signed by the mayor.

“We’ve had members of our industry that have likely reached out to their contacts in Congress to ask for a re-direction of how to resolve this issue,” said Dave Rousse, INDA’s president.

And it has found a willing partner: Rep. Andy Harris (R-Maryland), who is considering inserting a provision into a federal appropriations bill that would prohibit the city from spending any money enforcing the law.

It’s not the first time that Harris — whose district lies mostly on the other side of the Chesapeake Bay from Washington — has tried to unlegislate D.C.’s laws: After D.C. voters approved a measure legalizing the possession and home-cultivation of small amounts of marijuana in 2014, Harris inserted a provision into the city’s budget prohibiting it from legalizing the sale of marijuana. That provision — known as a budget rider — remains in place.

In an email, Harris effectively confirmed that he’s at least considering another budget rider: “Congress has legislative authority over the District of Columbia and provides annual funding to the city, and it’s possible we would deal with this through an appropriations measure that makes D.C. think twice about banning a product that’s popular — flushable wipes,” he wrote.

Harris defended the move by arguing that local policymakers were out of line.

“The D.C. law sets a standard that no company could meet, and would therefore pull these products out of stores. Without these wipes, people could turn to whatever’s available, such as baby wipes, and flush them anyway – thus exacerbating the sewer problem even further.”

While any congressional interference in D.C.’s affairs usually draws expressions of frustration from city officials, Harris’s interest in the wipes law has sparked particularly pointed words from D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton.

“This is a new low. Normally they are looking for some policy issue,” she said, noting that the most recent congressional foray into city issues dealt with a bill legalizing assisted suicide. “Rep. Harris now seems willing to get down in the gutter and take on the sewers and the toilets of private homes, federal agencies and Congress alike — and clog them,” she added.

Rousse simply says that he wants D.C. to reconsider the bill, and instead adopt standards set by the industry for which wipes are flushable and which are not.

“We have worked out with the major wastewater associations a code of practice for the proper labeling of wipes that takes into consideration that there are many different kinds of wipes, and most wipes should be marked with a very prominent ‘Do not flush’ symbol,” he said. “The code of practice articulates which wipes need to be packaged with that symbol and which wipes could be marketed as flushable.”

But Council member Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3), who wrote the wipes bill, says those standards are not enough.

“What we need is a definition where we will have wipes that are in fact flushable and a definition to distinguish those that are from those that are not,” she said. “Their definition is not adequate.”

Cheh also says that no matter if the issue is big or small, D.C.’s elected officials should have a say in the city’s affairs, not Congress.

“I find this deeply offensive,” she said. “I don’t care if it’s an ideological issue or some corporate representative slinking around to defeat something the people of the District voted on.”

Norton says she’s working to ensure that Harris’s efforts are not successful, and adds that she’s more optimistic than usual that she’ll emerge victorious.

“We’re working in both the House and the Senate to make sure this gets nowhere, and we think we have a fairly good chance,” she said. “I don’t think there are a lot of members that want to be associated with the sewers of the District of Columbia.”