Land Application Misunderstood in Big Sky Country

A state official overseeing decentralized wastewater would like to see an onsite and pumping trade association start up to improve consumer education.
Land Application Misunderstood in Big Sky Country
Reach Mary Hendrickson at 406/444-1808 or

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It’s a common problem in the onsite industry. As more people seek the peaceful rural lifestyle, conflicts arise with the way things are done outside the big city. That’s true in Montana as its natural beauty attracts more people to Big Sky Country, and where land application of septage is a common waste management strategy.

Land spreading is regulated by the Solid Waste and Septic Tank Pumper program at Montana’s Department of Environmental Quality. Septic tank installation is guided by DEQ’s Water Quality Circular, but enforced by the state’s 56 counties, which may have rules more stringent than the state.

Mary Hendrickson acts as the technical lead for the department, working with onsite and pumping professionals.

What is the relationship among states, counties and the onsite industry?

Hendrickson: Pumpers are regulated by DEQ Solid Waste and Septic Tank Pumper program according to the Septage Disposal and Licensure Law. All disposal sites must be approved, first at the county level, and then by DEQ. Counties have the opportunity to establish additional restrictions or requirements for septage land application sites under their jurisdiction. Both state and county officials have the authority to inspect sites and pumper disposal records.

Pumpers must be licensed by the state, but it’s really very simple. They complete a license application and confirm that they have the equipment necessary to do what they are proposing to do, a very easy process. There is no exam. That would require a change in state law and a board to oversee it.

DEQ doesn’t regulate installers; there is no state testing or certification program. Most counties require installers to be licensed or certified locally. County requirements vary, with some providing classroom time to go over current regulations before taking an exam. Some require installers be certified annually and complete a set amount of continuing education. County sanitarians provide training to installers in their counties, publish newsletters, and provide updates to regulations as necessary. We don’t know how many installers there are; some are certified or licensed to operate in several counties. A standardized program would provide consistency among installers.

Onsite wastewater systems must be installed according to the current Montana Standards for On-Site Subsurface Sewage Treatment Systems that dictate the size and depth of the tank and drainfield. The type of system required depends on site-specific conditions. The standards do allow for flexibility in system design. However, installers must go through the design deviation and waiver process before installation.

There are no statewide requirements for pumping or maintenance of septic systems, but some more populated counties with a high concentration of onsite systems require pumping and maintenance every two or three years to minimize groundwater impacts.

Does the state offer annual training for pumpers?

Hendrickson: There are currently 155 licensed pumpers and the state provides classroom training to them annually, but it’s not required. It could be a day or two depending on the content. We cover things from land application and how wastewater treatment facilities work to how a septic tank works, and we give them information they can take back to educate their customers, such as using certain products in their homes.

Several years ago we increased fees for pumper licenses. It was $125 and we raised it to $300. When we did that, we wanted the buy-in of our regulated community, so we formed a pumper advisory committee to help us. That provided support for our fee increase, but also ensured that part of the money would go back to counties for their administration and another portion into our training account.

Typically, we’ve done the training in or near Helena (the state capital), but the last couple of years we just haven’t had a lot of attendance because Montana is such a big state. So this year, we’ve decided to take our show on the road. I’ve set aside five communities where we’re going to meet with pumpers and provide education on regulations and processes. We hope that the road show will encourage pumpers to attend, ask questions and become more involved in the industry.

What current issues does the onsite industry face in your state?

Hendrickson: Pumpers are facing much more public opposition to the land application of septage. As developments emerge in rural locations, homeowners find the concept of land application distasteful and hazardous. Montana is a beautiful state and more and more people are moving here. There may be a land application site next door they didn’t know about and they see a truck out there disposing of septage.

In the bigger cities, pumpers are able to take it to wastewater treatment plants. But I’d say about 60 to 75 percent of pumped septage is land-applied. When we get complaints, I try to educate them on why it’s beneficial and that it’s a great way to use that resource. Most of the time that will alleviate their concerns as long as the pumper is operating within the regulations. Our pumpers who do land application are doing a really good job. Both installers and pumpers can help overcome this by taking the time to educate homeowners about septic tanks.

This can be done by pointing out that they have an onsite system because they don’t have access to a public or privately owned treatment system. Most wastewater treatment facilities in rural areas do not accept septage for disposal because of the impact they have on the balance of their facility, so land application is often the only option for disposal.

County sanitarians are a huge help to us and play a pretty big role helping provide educational information to the public. DEQ has developed a comic book for the sanitarians that they can pass out to homeowners showing how a septic tank is installed and maintained. We also have a homeowners guide on our website (

Would you like to have an onsite association in Montana?

Hendrickson: Yes, definitely. No. 1, they could help us identify training topics. That’s one of the biggest challenges I’ve faced in the last several years. We always ask them and I frequently make phone calls to find out what interests them so that training could be tailored to their specific needs. I appreciate what they do very much, but I’m not out there doing what they do.

An association would also help by providing consistency. They all do things a little differently. If there were an organization, they would probably feel freer to share information about issues, problems they’ve had and how they resolved them, and be willing to reach out to people about their problems. An association would also have a stronger voice in helping to refine the regulations.

Have there been any discussions of forming a group?

Hendrickson: There has been. They’ve discussed it for years, but no one has stepped forward to lead the effort. Getting people involved is difficult because Montana is such a huge state.


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