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Regional septage treatment facility could address growing problem

by HEIDI DESCH
Daily Inter Lake | December 7, 2022 1:00 AM

On any given day up to 40,000 gallons of septage waste needs to be pumped from septic tanks in Flathead County and with rapid growth in the area over the past decade suitable land for disposal of that waste has become scarce.

“The challenge that has occurred is that as land has developed there has become more septage but there has become less and less land,” said Bill Buxton with HDR Engineering.

To address the issue the county is considering constructing a regional septage treatment and biosolids composting facility. HDR has been contracted by the county to create a plan and design for the plant.

Beginning in 2008 finding land available for septage disposal started to become difficult. More recently, one business accepting solids for composting hit capacity. Then this summer owners of porta potties struggled to find a way to dispose of the septage while private septic pumpers contacted the county Health Department saying they were unable to provide service because of a lack of land for disposal.

“This is a problem that has ebbed and flowed over the years, but in 2022 it reached a peak,” said Buxton during an information meeting hosted by county commissioners Thursday morning.

Funding for construction of the facility comes from a 2021 American Rescue Plan Act grant that includes a $15 million construction budget, but exact costs remain undetermined. The county says that funding has made moving forward with the project possible.

“We have an opportunity to solve an issue that affects everyone,” Buxton said.

The county has an estimated 30,000 wastewater treatment systems. So far in 2022 there has been nearly 680 new septic tanks approved.

Septic tanks provide the primary treatment of wastewater before it discharges into a drain field, but some of the leftover matter, known as septage, needs to be removed from the septic tank about every three to five years. Septic tanks that aren’t pumped can overflow and fail.

“The lack of maintenance results in a failure which is an environmental and health issue,” Buxton said.

Septage can’t be disposed of at wastewater treatment facilities in the county’s municipalities because it could disrupt treatment processes in turn causing those plants to exceed state regulations. Thus septage from the county is currently disposed of through land application, which includes injecting the untreated septage into the soil.

The new facility, which would be the first of its kind in the state, would take untreated septage delivered by truck, then treat it before piping the liquid to the Lakeside Water and Sewer District. The biosolids that remain are converted into compost.

Further analysis of a potential site for the facility on Wiley Dike Road is expected to wrap up this month. If the plant is approved by commissioners, it is expected that design would take place in 2023 and the facility could be operational in 2025.

SHOWING PUBLIC support of the regional plant, the Flathead Basin Commission and the city of Columbia Falls both submitted letters to the county.

Rich Janssen, chair of the basin commision, said the body has prioritized the issue of septic leachate pollution from septic tanks in the Flathead Basin.

“It is our intention to support your efforts to build a regional septage treatment and biosolids composting facility in Flathead County,” he wrote. “We believe that this is a long overdue solution to preserve environmental quality within the Flathead Basin, an area that experienced some of the fastest growth in the state in the last few years.”

As land disposal of septage becomes less of an option, Jansess said, the commission supports the development of better solutions for septage disposal in the county.

“Addressing this crisis through a state-of-the-art facility, using proven technology and process systems, and proving a better avenue of disposal for septage will safeguard our natural resources and provide vast benefits to the entire basin.”

Columbia Falls Mayor Don Barnhart in a letter to the county says the city strongly supports the undertaking.

“We believe that this is a long overdue solution to preserve the environmental quality within Flathead County,” he said.

Cynthia Murray, manager of the Evergreen Water and Sewer District, on Thursday told commissioners that the Evergreen district supports a regional facility.

“It’s imperative that we go forward with this quickly,” she said. “This project is important. In Evergreen we have 1,800 septic tanks that need to be serviced and have reliable disposal for that is imperative.”

DURING THE meeting on Thursday, neighbors of property on Wiley Dike Road that is being examined for the facility continued to voice their opposition to the proposed location.

County commissioners in October approved a buy-sell agreement with the intent of purchasing the 36.9 acres because of its size, proximity to the Lakeside wastewater district and available access to highways.

The purchase price of the property is listed as $1.5 million with an estimated closing date in January 2023. Preliminary concepts for the plan presented on Thursday show that the facility could be designed to look like a large barn, and all treatment and composting processes would occur indoors with measures designed to control odor, according to the engineer.

Neighbors say the potential facility would affect their rural lifestyle. They cite concerns about traffic on the roads surrounding the property and the potential for odors coming from the plant, and whether the location makes sense given a portion of the property is located within the floodplain.

Dean Robbins was one of several speakers who took exception to the idea that the facility could fit within the character of the neighborhood.

“It’s not the right place to shoehorn in an industrial complex,” he said.

Don Slabaugh said the project would be better-suited north of Kalispell where more residential growth is occurring.

“This puts an industrial plant in a residential and agricultural area of town,” he said.

Operational details remain undetermined, but the county expects that operation of the plant would be funded through tipping fees or a charge based on the volume of septage or biosolids being delivered to the site.

The engineer has been analyzing the county’s needs taking into account 20- and 40-year growth projections.

The county has set up an information page on its website regarding the septage treatment facility at https://tinyurl.com/4dtxa5mp.

Features Editor Heidi Desch may be reached at 758-4421 or hdesch@dailyinterlake.com.