Residents decry foul odor from wastewater treatment plant

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The City of Whitefish wastewater treatment plant. (Heidi Desch/Whitefish Pilot)

Mark Owens says for the majority of the month of May the foul odor wafting from the city’s wastewater treatment facility has been unbearable.

“The smell of the sewer plant has gotten pretty bad,” he said. “This is worse than we’ve experienced in the last five years. I’ve talked to a lot of folks and this year is by far the worst.”

Owens says he counted 20 days of the 31 in the month of May when the smell was extreme, claiming that the city has let its guard down on the issue.

“I would like the city to acknowledge that the smell is out of control,” he told City Council at its meeting last week. “I want to see a plan of action to address this.”

Residents living on the southeast side of Whitefish have once again been raising issue with the smell they say drives them to spend warm spring days indoors with the windows closed.

For its part, City of Whitefish officials say they’re aware of the issue and have been doing their best to mitigate the odors, while asking residents to be patient while the city constructs a new wastewater treatment plant scheduled to be operational in spring 2021.

City Councilor Frank Sweeney pointed to the city’s work with consultants in attempts to improve the situation.

“Nobody is trying to bury this issue or put perfume on it,” he said. “We’re doing everything we can.”

Three years ago the smell got so bad that a group of neighbors banded together with more than 300 signing a petition asking the city to address the odor. That spring the city brought in an expert to analyze the city’s system and help improve it for odor control, solutions the city says it is still utilizing.

However, the foul odors seemed to have returned this spring with folks noticing the smell lingering along U.S. Highway 93, south toward Montana 40 and north around Super 1 Foods.

Resident Mark Heil said enjoying a walk along the Whitefish River has become impossible due to the stench.

“You would think living in a pristine mountain town the air would be crisp and clean, ah no,” Heil wrote in a letter to the Pilot. “Whitefish has a new distinct odor that is far from clean and crisp emanating from the sewage treatment plant.”

City Public Works Director Craig Workman says the “radius of influence” from the odor seems to have been larger this year, and the city has been actively working to address it the best it can.

“It has been a bad turnover this year,” Workman said “On an annual basis we expect turnover in the lagoon, but this spring the turnover has been longer. As ice comes off the lagoon that brings anaerobic undigested sludge and that causes the odor.”

Workman said as temperatures stabilize there should be less odor, and the city is doing what it can — like adding probiotics in doses of up to three times normal to the lagoon to aide in the digestion of the solids — and the smell should dissipate soon.

“We’re working really hard to try to address this,” Workman said. “We’re doing everything we can, but with a lagoon system the tools are limited.”

Construction on the city’s new wastewater treatment plant is set to begin later this year and that will also allow for removing 20 years of sludge built up in the lagoon that is part of the issue, Workman added.

“There will be one more year of this and then hopefully we will be done with this issue,” he said.

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