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County commissioners commit to constructing septage plant

by HEIDI DESCH
Daily Inter Lake | March 29, 2023 1:00 AM

Flathead County commissioners say they are committed to developing a septage treatment facility despite the recent rejection of property to house it.

Commissioners met with county staff on Wednesday during a work session to discuss the next steps. All three commissioners expressed interest in continuing to pursue the construction of a facility.

“We all know there is a problem,” Commissioner Pam Holmquist said. “We need to exhaust all of the options to figure out something because we need to make sure that this facility goes forward.”

“I believe we need this facility,” Commissioner Brad Abell said. “We need to come up with a solution. The government has got to step up to the plate and take this on.”

“I support moving ahead,” Commissioner Randy Brodehl said. “I support searching for the best answer on this.”

Commissioners on March 14 voted down the purchase of 36.9 acres on Wiley Dike Road for the plant but at the time didn’t provide much information on whether the county would still pursue the facility at a different location.

Holmquist was the only commissioner to vote in favor of the land purchase.

On any given day between 20,000 and 40,000 gallons of septage waste needs to be pumped from septic tanks and treated, according to the county, 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 been considering constructing a regional septage treatment and biosolids composting facility.

County Administrator Pete Melnick pointed out that it could take four years for the facility to become operational and in the meantime, the land available to dispose of the waste continues to shrink. In addition, the county has funding available now for the plant that it would lose if it’s not used.

“We have to make some decisions,” Melnick told commissioners. “We have a clock running big time. We have to move ahead with this.”

In voting to reject the property purchase, Brodehl suggested that finding a location to dispose of septage might not necessarily be the county’s responsibility, but rather that of private businesses that haul septic waste.

However, this week Brodehl said he didn’t agree with the numbers presented in a preliminary market analysis provided by the county’s engineer, HDR Engineering, regarding the proposed facility. He also questioned the validity of the equipment cost figures in the document and said he would need more time to discuss the plan before moving forward.

“I had a tough time getting to a place where I could trust that,” he said. “I didn’t see we should move ahead with the purchase of the property because of that. We were risking $1.8 million in hookup fees and $1.5 million for the property if the business plan isn’t successful.”

The county has an agreement in place with the Lakeside County Water and Sewer District to accept future effluent from the septage plant with a connection fee of $1.8 million. Though that agreement may not be viable depending on the eventual property location for a plant.

Brodehl lamented that the county would be footing the bill for the septage facility noting that cost estimates show that the county would have to subsidize plant operations for several years before the fees paid for by septic haulers and the sale of compost would cover the bills.

He also expressed discomfort that the owner of a septic tank would pay both a fee to have their septic tank pumped and county property taxes in support of the septage facility. But he added, “that ship has sailed.”

“I’d like to get to the point where there is less subsidy by the taxpayer,” he said, in asking county staff to seek out a revised business plan from the engineer.

The market analysis shows that the plant would not support itself for the first seven to eight years. Fees would be collected through woody waste and biosolids brought to the plant and septage tipping fees from septage pumpers. Sales of compost, the byproduct of biosolids and woody waste, would also generate funds.

The facility is predicted to operate with positive revenue in the eighth year. The sooner the septage treatment plant and the compost facility approach full capacity, the faster the operation will generate revenue to become self-sustaining, the analysis notes.

Melnick pointed out that there would always be a risk to the county in operating the plant, but that should diminish as less land becomes available for disposing of septage, meaning haulers would need to use the county’s facility.

“As you look out farther there is uncertainty, but at the same time there is some certainty in that the septic pumpers will need to use it because the prediction is that the land they need is going away and that’s going to drive customers to the plant,” he said. “And you’re not competing with the septic haulers, you’re competing with those providing land for application.”

“Those landowners don’t want to do it anymore,” Melnick added of the land disposal. “They either don’t want to be in that business anymore or they are getting complaints from neighbors that are encroaching on their farmer’s fields. So that land is going to continue to shrink, so we have urgency here.”

Neighbors of the rejected property in Lower Valley have for months raised strong opposition to the plant's location near homes. A new location remains undetermined at this point as the county says it’s exploring other properties but hasn’t identified any specifically.

“We need to have a facility that has the least amount of impact,” Brodehl said on Wednesday. “We need to have the least negative impact with the highest level of effectiveness. This is going to change the dynamics of the immediate area around the plant and we’re just going to have to suck it up and say that’s the way it is.”

In reflecting back the commissioners’ input, Melnick said county staff would look to get a more expansive business plan together while searching for property.

“That’s the first step, we’ve got to find a location,” he said.

The funding for the construction of the facility comes from a 2021 ARPA grant that includes a $15.4 million construction budget. The county also has about $2.3 million set aside in grant funds from the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation for the facility and has applied for additional funding.

The cost estimate for the plant places it at up to $28.6 million.

A FEW different perspectives emerged at the meeting.

Dustin Thornton of A1 Sanitation said he’s been working to develop his own treatment facility by piecing together equipment over the years and hopes to have it operational within five years. And he has no plans to use a county facility in the future.

“When the county had no money for this they had no interest in this,” he said, following the meeting. “Now that they have free money they want to be in direct competition with private business.”

Thornton says the process his company uses is already more environmentally conscious than others because the septage collected is screened for trash, then the solids and liquid are separated before the liquid is injected directly into the soil. While others simply spread the septage on the land and then till the soil sometime later.

Processing the septage through a treatment facility would improve the process even further, Thorton agrees.

“This is needed — it’s a healthier, better way to do it,” he said. “But I’ve been working to make it better on my own because that’s the right thing to do.”

Mayre Flowers, with Citizens for a Better Flathead, asked the commissioners to consider a process that would allow for septage waste to be processed at the landfill. This could include the dried biosolids, and those that are already taken by municipalities to the landfill, to be utilized for energy generation.

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 to create an environmental impact.

The county’s engineer has been analyzing the needs for a plant taking into account 20- and 40-year growth projections. The septage plant would be expected to be capable of processing 5 million gallons of waste and effluent annually.