No Place To Dump? Montana County Plans New Septage Dewatering Facility

In a popular tourist area, officials plan to use American Rescue Plan Act funds to help solve local disposal issues.

No Place To Dump? Montana County Plans New Septage Dewatering Facility

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Joe Russell has been a sanitarian since 1987 and for 20 years ran the Health Department in Flathead County, Montana, as the health officer. He retired once, but he’s back in his old job for a while because of difficulty finding his replacement. Yet he now has the opportunity to accomplish a longtime goal: building a county-owned facility to handle septage.

Money is in place for a solution that officials hope will solve the shrinking number of disposal sites and loss of pumpers in the county.

Pumper: How did you come to find yourselves in this situation?

Russell: We’re sitting in the same place as many other communities. We have three large city wastewater plants. One has a long-term contract with a portable restroom business. That’s the only septage received by any municipality. The others don’t want to manage all that BOD.

Most of the county is a mountain valley. This is a destination area, and it’s crazy what properties are going for here. Septage disposal is competing against other land uses.

So a farmer who’s been taking septage for 20 years has an offer to sell his land for a subdivision where 5 acres cost about $350,000. We’ve had pumpers quit because they lose their farm disposal site.

The other thing driving this is, the EPA in Montana does a (poor) job of regulating septage disposal. You can till a field, and till it and till it, and you still have solids. And these wipes that people love to use, they’re all over the fields. We’ve had people complain to the Health Department because they don’t want sewage near their homes.

Pumper:  How do you intend to treat the septage?

Russell: Right now we’re looking at a sequencing batch reactor to reduce BOD. It’s actually a very inexpensive technology and is totally scalable. It wouldn’t have to run hard in winter, but it would run, and that would encourage people to pump year-round. 

Pumper:  How much capacity are you considering?

Russell: We’re looking at up to 30,000 gpd. We could treat it to high-quality effluent and maybe do subsurface irrigation, but that would require a significant area. We would rather not get into the business of having to do our disposal on site. We would rather have a municipality that does that all the time to take the supernatant.

Discharge to surface water is extremely hard here. Even groundwater discharge would need a permit. Montana also has nondegradation laws, so we would have to demonstrate that any discharge would not degrade the groundwater or surface water.

Pumper:  How did you arrive at the 30,000 gpd capacity?

Russell: We started from knowing we have about 30,000 septic tanks in the county. If you pump a tank every three to five years at 1,000 to 1,500 gallons each, it averages out to that 30,000 gpd. I’ve done the calculations several times, and the engineers have, too.

Pumper:  Are you concerned about growth overrunning that capacity?

Russell: That’s the advantage of an SBR. We could literally install a second one in parallel.

Pumper:  Have you thought about requiring alternative technology for new homes that would reduce the septage strength?

Russell: I think we’d have trouble with the additional cost of those systems. Flathead County has been requiring uniform pressure distribution for about 15 years to reduce BOD and hydraulic overloads. That probably adds $4,000 to $5,000 to the cost of a septic system just because of the pumps, the controls, all the stuff that makes it work. It’s economically feasible because the drainfield size drops by 20%.

We permit a lot of nitrogen reduction systems in Flathead County because of the surface and groundwater nondegradation issues. And here’s the dilemma: You can only require new septic systems to do alternative technology. Do we put the whole burden on the 600 to 800 permits we’ll issue this next year? Or we do something that will benefit everyone with a septic system, and hopefully keep the fees lower so people will pump more frequently and their systems will last longer?

Pumper: How will this be funded?

Russell: There are two pots of money. We have a $2 million grant from the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. We also have money from the American Rescue Plan Act. Flathead County has accepted $10 million and will accept another $10 million.

Pumper:  What’s the expected cost?

Russell: We estimate it will be up to $16 million. It will be over $10 million for certain. Everything’s going to be enclosed although our composting facility may be roofed. A lot of composting, even using sewage, isn’t a high-odor environment if managed properly.

Pumper:  Do you have a site for this?

Russell: A board of health committee identified three potential sites.

Pumper:  What’s the best site?

Russell: It’s south of Kalispell on either Bigfork or Lakeside Sewer District Property. They do land application at the Bigfork site and spray irrigation on the Lakeside site. We’re hoping we could get land there near the highway. Next door is a solid waste operation. About 1 1/2 miles away is the lakeside Sewer District spray irrigation site. We’re hoping they would take water from our planned operation. 

Pumper:  How will you dewater?

Russell: I think a belt filter press would be the best way to go at it, once again not a real expensive piece of equipment. 

Pumper:  And you said the sludge will be composted?

Russell: Yes. I think we’re going to go high-quality. We may have an industrial grade for farmers who want to do some soil amendments.

I can tell you for a fact, if we wanted to, we could enter into a business agreement with a private company to come in and bag the compost and sell it. Think of all the jobs this could create.

I’m fortunate enough to have a place on a lake west of Kalispell. Let’s say I take my brush to the compost facility and pick up some compost, and take it back out. If we’re going to have to pay to have our water treated, maybe we shouldn’t pay for brush. Right now a stump going to the landfill costs you about $200 because they take up so much room, and they’re not easy to chip.

Pumper:  When did this current version of the idea get rolling?

Russell: I think when I came back 18 months ago. All this ARPA money was being considered. Two of our commissioners have been real champions of this project. (All the votes have been unanimous.) I’ll be gone most likely before a shovel hits the ground, but we have a good engineering firm, and we have the funds in place to do it.

This project has some legs under it right now, and I’m really pleased about that. It has some political will as well.

Pumper:  Is the idea of all this generally accepted?

Russell: I’m a pretty conservative guy, and I don’t like to pay taxes either. But I can tell you for a fact that this federal money would have gone to another municipality if our commissioners didn’t accept it. So are we going to make lemonade with this money? Or are we going to let some other community take the money that’s earmarked for our 104,000 population?

It’s a really hard argument, but that money’s already been levied. I keep thinking, let’s do something of high public benefit that will last Flathead County for the next 50 years and keep our tipping fees down and encourage people to pump their systems.

We’re not just going to build a plant. We’re going to build a business plan that makes sense for Flathead County.  


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