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With its upscale shops and high-priced hops, the intersection of 119th Street and Roe Avenue is a bull’s-eye of suburban affluence in Greater Kansas City.
It’s also a heart attack waiting to strike.
Lurking below the Leawood intersection — with its cluster of restaurants and residents — are sewer lines choked with a nasty mix of waste and grease that threaten to trigger a major infarction.
It happened in 1998. And it could happen again.
“There was so much grease in the line it literally blew out the manhole lid. It caused a backup and overflowed something fierce,” said Betsy Betros, Johnson County’s director of pollution control.
It seems our love affair with crab rangoon, chimichangas and seared sirloin has left unpleasant deposits underneath our sprawling metropolis.
Johnson County clamped down on restaurants five years ago, forcing new restaurants, big and small, to install expensive equipment to trap the grease. Some restaurant owners have fought the rules for years, and may finally be getting some regulatory relief.
Kansas City says it has seen a dramatic decrease in the number of grease clogs by taking less draconian measures focused on educating restaurant owners and their high-turnover employees.
In Johnson County, it’s estimated that 270,000 restaurant meals are eaten each day.
Nationally, the eat-out industry will generate $537 billion in gross sales this year, said Don Sayler, chief executive officer of the Kansas Restaurant and Hospitality Association.
Nearly half of every dollar we spend on food today will end up in a restaurant’s cash register.
“Managing grease is a huge problem,” he said.
The “Mount Vesuvius of grease,” as Betros described the 1998 eruption, was the single incident that sparked Johnson County to revisit its grease problem.
It left a wooded area about the size of two basketball courts coated in a rank blanket of fats, oils, grease and waste, said Darrell Thornbrough, the county’s assistant director of wastewater collection.
About the same time, major cities across the country awakened to a sober prognosis that their sewer lines are prime candidates for grease clog angioplasty.
The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that nearly half of all sewage blocks are caused by grease and has fined several communities for overflows.
In 2003 the National Association of Clean Water Agencies estimated there were 138,000 sewer overflows caused by grease blockages. The average spill is about 3,700 gallons, spokeswoman Susan Bruninga said. The annual cleanup cost? $750 million.
With no federal oversight, local governments are left to solve their own grease problems, even if they don’t fully know how they are caused.