WASHINGTON — As the lunch hour faded on a recent workday, Ed Hairfield and his crew roared into the parking lot of a Panda Express.
They stood a few feet from the Hyattsville, Md., restaurant's door, where mouth-watering aromas drifted out each time it opened. But the crew of one of the Washington, D.C., area's largest sanitary systems could not care less about the menu's SweetFire Chicken Breast. They only cared about the lard.
Every day, up to five times a day, Hairfield's six-man Washington Suburban Sanitation Commission crew pops open a hatch next to a store or restaurant to study a nasty sight: lumpy grease buildup from cooked animal and vegetable fat.
It's the same stuff that makes flabby bellies jiggle and roll, that clogs arteries and stops hearts, and the crews are deployed to keep it from doing the same to WSSC's network of sewer pipes. This year and last, inspectors issued 31 citations to pizza joints, Chinese restaurants, cafes and other establishments for failing to properly maintain pricey interceptors that stop thick kitchen grease from backing up pipes.
But the blame doesn't fall solely on restaurants. Grease is poured down kitchen drains by hundreds of thousands of household cooks in the region, and by hundreds of millions of people nationwide. Coagulated fat from fried bacon, steaks, chicken, burgers and potatoes cools into a pipe-choking yellowish blob after flowing into sewers, causing serious overflows that threaten homes and the Chesapeake Bay.
Around Thanksgiving, WSSC officials brace themselves, commission spokeswoman Lyn Riggins said. That's when thousands of people deep-fry turkeys and pour tubs of lard down drains. Last year during the holiday, WSSC ran public service announcements in theaters before movies on the proper way to dispose of grease at home.