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Commissioners reject property purchase in Lower Valley for septage plant

by HEIDI DESCH
Daily Inter Lake | March 22, 2023 1:00 AM

Flathead County commissioners on Tuesday on a split vote denied the purchase of property in Lower Valley that was slated as the potential location for a regional septage treatment facility.

Commissioners Brad Abell and Randy Brodehl voted against the purchase of 36.9 acres on Wiley Dike Road, while Commissioner Pam Holmquist voted in favor. Commissioners had previously OK’d a buy-sell agreement for the land, with a purchase price of $1.5 million, while determining its suitability as a location for the facility.

According to county figures, on any given day up to 40,000 gallons of septage waste needs to be pumped from septic tanks and treated, but with the rapid growth in the area suitable land for disposal of that waste has become scarce. To address the issue the county has considered construction of a regional septage treatment and biosolids composting facility.

But Brodehl said finding a location to dispose of septage from septic tanks is not necessarily the county’s problem to address.

“I think this is a private industry responsibility and private industry hasn’t planned for this,” he said. “Just because the private industry didn’t plan for this it doesn’t mean it’s not their responsibility. Their lack of planning doesn’t mean the county should step up and grow government so it takes care of the responsibilities of private industry.”

Brodehl did suggest that a sewer district would be better suited to take the disposal of septage rather than the county.

Following the meeting, commissioners offered little explanation as to whether the county still plans to pursue the construction of a septage treatment facility.

“Staff will have to huddle up and we will go from here,” Brodehl said.

“What happens now is up in the air,” Holmquist said. “It’s still a needed service in our community. Where we go from here — we will have to regroup.”

Holmquist noted that last week commissioners approved an agreement with Lakeside Water and Sewer District to accept effluent from a septage facility.

But that agreement specifies that the county plans to enter into a purchase agreement for the Wiley Dike Road property. It also says that if the county does not close on the property before June 1 the agreement with Lakeside becomes void.

Neighbors of the property have for months expressed opposition to the facility’s location saying it would affect their rural lifestyle including increasing traffic on the surrounding roads and the potential for odors emanating from the plant. On Tuesday they continued to express opposition.

“This puts the entire county’s waste and puts it in a small area,” Jennifer Tipton told commissioners. “We will be prisoners in our houses if this is approved.”

“You are stealing me and my family’s way of life,” Anna Mahlen said.

Brodehl cautioned neighbors who applauded the commissioners’ decision.

“If private industry comes up with a way to fund this you might not like what they come up with either and you might not be able to come to the county and say you can’t do this because we would no longer be engaged in this,” he said.

Funding for construction of the facility has been planned to come from a 2021 American Rescue Plan Act grant that includes a $15 million construction budget, but exact costs remain undetermined.

THE COUNTY has an estimated 30,000 septic tanks, which 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 creating an environmental impact.

The Flathead Basin Commission has supported the construction of a septage facility saying it would address the issue of septic leachate pollution from septic tanks in the Flathead Basin.

“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,” Rich Janssen, chair of the basin commission, wrote in a letter to the county.

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.

According to a preliminary market analysis provided by HDR Engineering, which was contracted by the county to create a plan for the facility, data provided by the Montana Department of Environmental Quality seems to indicate that there is a “significant demand for septage disposal beyond the quantity of land that is currently permitted for land application.”

The new facility, which would be the first of its kind in the state if constructed, has been planned for taking untreated septage delivered by truck, then treating it before piping the liquid to a sewer district facility.

The leftover biosolids are converted into compost.

The facility could also accept biosolids from the county’s sewer plants. The city of Kalispell currently sends its biosolids to Glacier Gold for use in composting and to the county landfill. The city of Columbia Falls sends all of its biosolids to the landfill.

While the city of Whitefish dries its biosolids at its treatment facility and disposes of dried material at the landfill.

Commissioners last week unanimously approved an interlocal agreement with the Lakeside County Water and Sewer District to accept future effluent from the septage plant.

Under the agreement, the county would pay the Lakeside district a connection fee of $1.8 million. The fee is in lieu of the county paying its pro-rata share of the district’s upgrades to handle the effluent from the county’s future plant and to compensate for the district reserving the capacity needed to handle the county’s effluent.

In addition, the county will pay the district a monthly base rate, along with a fee for the amount of effluent piped to the district.

The agreement had been set to last until January 2043 when terms could be renegotiated.