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-area’s largest sanitary systems only cared about the lard.
Every day, up to five times a day, Hairfield’s six-man Washington Suburban Sanitation Commission crew opens a hatch next to a store or restaurant to study a nasty sight: lumpy grease buildup from 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 the commission’s network of sewer pipes. This year and last, inspectors issued 31 citations to pizza joints, restaurants, cafes, and other eateries 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 millions of people nationwide. Coagulated fat from bacon, steaks,burgers, and potatoes cools into a pipe-choking blob after flowing into sewers, causing overflows threatening homes and rivers.
‘‘People are using the sewer system as an alternative trash can, a very expensive alternative’’ said Robert Villée, a committee chairman for the Water Environment Federation.
The presence of fat in cities and suburbs is a symptom of a more pressing problem in the nation’s old and decrepit sewers, said Adam Krantz, managing director of governmental affairs for the National Association of Clean Water Agencies.
‘‘We are facing a looming crisis in terms of our water infrastructure,’’ Krantz said.