Cafe Reviewed: Wednesday, January 16, 2003

Local restaurateurs feel criminalized by the water department for letting grease go down the drain.


When most people think of pollution, they tend to think about auto exhaust, industrial chemical waste, maybe leaky landfills.

What they ought to also consider is a batch of french fries.

Those thin potato slices — or, more specifically, the deep fryers in restaurants that produce those delicacies — have been on city officials’ minds lately. Just ask the environmental supervisor of the Fort Worth Water Department, Jerry Pressley. His job is to help keep the Trinity River clean as it flows through Cowtown. To him, the grease that’s used in deep fryers and in other parts of a restaurant’s kitchen can be an environmental hazard if not handled properly. He’s working within the restaurant community now to help ensure that mishandled grease doesn’t slime up the sewer system and, well, fry us all.

His current project dates back to 1993, when the water authority was ordered by the Environmental Protection Agency to clean up the overall quality of the Trinity. By 2000, the city had won a clean bill of health from the EPA, but felt that maintaining clean water required a long-term effort. Water department officials, according to Pressley, then began enforcing existing clean-water guidelines with much more intensity.

One of those guidelines concerned the amount of grease that overflows from “generators” like hospitals, garages, nursing homes, food manufacturers, and restaurants into the Trinity. The river, according to Pressley, was being inundated with a lot of grease overflows from local eateries. To combat the problem, the city instituted new guidelines requiring remodeled or new restaurants to equip their kitchens with bigger, more powerful, and more expensive grease traps called “interceptors.” Restaurants that don’t comply can be shut down or fined.

The expected result for the city is cleaner water in the Trinity and less money spent on sewer line maintenance. However, local restaurateurs say another result for diners may be fewer new restaurants opening and fewer old ones remodeling or enlarging their operations.

A typical grease trap is a tank that allows grease to rise to the top and wastewater to flow out through a drain at the bottom. If a restaurant doesn’t dump its grease regularly, then the trap will fill with grease and begin “leaking” down the drain, clogging the city sewer system.

Some restaurant owners are unhappy about the change. They say that the interceptors are hugely expensive and unnecessary. The traditional 50-gallon trap, they say, works well enough.

Charles Stewart, owner of 7th Street Café, had no idea when he purchased the restaurant formerly known as Jubilee Café that the 40-gallon grease trap there wasn’t up to code. On top of opening expenses, he said, he had to spend an unexpected $30,000 to redo the restaurant’s plumbing and install a 2,000-gallon interceptor. “Now I’m hugely in debt,” he said. Stewart has put off cosmetic upgrades to the restaurant because of the interceptor expense.

Pressley thinks it’s all worth it. “We had to spend $250 million [in the early to mid-1990s] to improve waste management and wastewater,” he said. “When we studied overflows, more than 50 percent of it was grease. The grease abatement program is focused on the generators.”

Apartment complexes are also huge grease generators, a detail that has not escaped Stewart’s attention. “The code doesn’t bother me,” he said, “but it’s slanted against restaurants.” Pressley, on the contrary, said that it’s simply easier to educate restaurant owners on proper grease disposal than it is to try to teach every apartment dweller in the city to be more conscientious about grease disposal.

The Original Mexican Restaurant was also bitten in the behind by grease. Becky Becera, manager of The Original, said that the owners had to upgrade the old 50-gallon grease trap with a brand new 1,000-gallon interceptor. Although she doesn’t know how much the owners paid, Becera said it usually costs between $7,000 and $20,000 for a job of that magnitude.

Restaurant owners are finding it increasingly difficult to renovate or move because the grease traps that, they say, have worked well for years have to be replaced. Although Pressley is sympathetic, he said that the Village Creek wastewater treatment plant must be protected.

“We’ve had people say that, ‘If I have to do this, I’ll go out of business,’” Pressley said. He added that he tries to work with owners, giving them extra time to install the new devices, or working with them to minimize their grease discharges and improve maintenance so that the need for the bigger interceptors can be delayed. “But,” he added, “they can’t keep [putting off installing an interceptor] forever.

“It’s in [the restaurant’s] best interest to keep outflow clean,” he continued. “Safeguards are in place to protect them, even if they don’t appreciate it.” Pressley said the alternative — drains backing up into the restaurant kitchen — isn’t good for anybody.

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