Fill It Up But Don’t Dump It Out!

Pumpers continue to grapple with the challenge of more calls for periodic pumping and dwindling affordable disposal sites

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Septic pumpers are sometimes faced with a Catch-22 situation. The county or state wants you to empty customers’ septic tanks periodically — in many states and regions this is mandated. But once you get the sludge into the tank, these same governments can become uninterested in how you get rid of it. Pick up the load, sure. That’s a good idea. But dumping it, well that’s another matter.

A pumper’s first thought might be to leave the load at an area municipal plant where operators are used to treating wastewater and releasing clean water back into the environment. Well, more and more often, the answer is “No, we’re concerned about our system’s treatment capacity and all of this septic waste might cause problems.”

So then the pumper might think, “Well, OK, I can always land-apply septage if the treatment plant won’t take it.” Wrong. Maybe it’s winter and the state won’t allow spreading on frozen ground. Or neighbors will object to land application, so you can’t do that either.

So the pumper idles in his truck with a tank full of waste that nobody wants to handle locally. The next option is driving it over a county or two where you might find a willing plant to process the waste.

Luckily, disposal isn’t always an issue. I talk to pumpers every day and the topic of disposal invariably comes up. If the pumper has a receptive municipal plant and the per-gallon fee isn’t out of control, it’s no problem. Or if the pumper is in a rural area in a state that doesn’t object to land application, that can be an economic way to go.

But you have to feel for the small-business pumpers who find themselves in an area where no reasonable disposal options exist. This challenge is hurting their livelihood and the pocketbooks of their customers who rely on a septic system.


Consider what pumpers are going through in Sundance, Wyoming, these days. The state Department of Environmental Quality rules for septage land application have become stricter in recent years. And at the same time, the city of Sundance doesn’t want to allow septage to be added to its city wastewater lagoons. So it’s becoming pretty difficult for pumpers to thread the needle to find a solution.

According to a report in the Sundance Times, the 2018 DEQ rules were changed to state that land-spreading can only be done on property where septic tanks are pumped. Additionally, dumping must happen at least 1,000 feet from adjacent property owners and 300 feet from a private road, body of water or stream. This restricts pumpers from devising a plan to spread waste on their own property or contracted lands.

But at the same time, the city does not want to agree to requests from area pumpers to dump at municipal lagoons that take waste from residents using the sewer system. There is enough capacity to take the waste, but a concern that the concentrated septic sludge will throw off the chemistry in the lagoons and lead to expensive dredging operations.

The public works director, Mac Erickson, recommends local officials refuse to take on the septic waste from outside the city limits.

“If we start taking on a thousand gallons at a time of sludge, it’s going to be quite the burden on our lagoon [with] the possibility of some contaminants coming in there that we don’t want and damaging or killing the bugs in the lagoon,” he said during a meeting on the issue. “We certainly don’t want to be the bad guys, but I think it’s in the city’s best interests to protect what we have.”

You know where this all leaves local pumpers. In limbo.


Some communities are seeking solutions to better handle septic waste. Montana’s Flathead County just agreed to purchase nearly 37 acres of land to develop a septage treatment operation, according to a report in the Daily Interlake in Kalispell, Montana. The county will spend $1.5 million for the land and about $15 million in American Rescue Plan Act and state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation money on the project.

Sludge from an estimated 30,000 septic systems serving a large rural area will be trucked to the facility and treated, with effluent flowing into the adjacent Lakeside Water and Sewer District treatment plant and dried cake converted into compost at the site.

As you might expect, there were objections to the plan from neighbors of the septage treatment site. Nearby resident Jennifer Tipton argued, “This will concentrate the entire county’s waste around my family and neighbors and near Flathead Lake.” Another neighbor said the plan would have a negative impact on his property. “It does not take a genius to figure out no homeowner wants the county to build a septage biowaste composting facility next to their property,” said Jason Mahlen.

But local officials were adamant that a solution is necessary to provide a way to treat waste being generated by rural taxpayers and caused, in part, by increasing development in the popular region. The county reported that 40,000 gallons of septage must be pumped daily and that waste has to go somewhere.

“We have great concerns about how those septic tanks will be pumped going forward,” said Cynthia Murray, general manager of the Evergreen Water and Sewer District. “This facility is so important for the future. What the county is doing is forward-thinking and responsible for the citizens of the county.”


I agree with Murray that this plan is forward-thinking on the part of the county. Septage treatment is not some bright and shiny government project that generates positive attention. And as it is shown in this case, such a project can turn out to be a political liability for local officials who support it.

But if there is anything we should be spending taxpayer money on right now, it’s these important infrastructure projects that keep our communities moving. Across the country, roads, bridges, airports, power grid and — most certainly — our wastewater systems are aging and in need of repair. Too often necessary upgrades to infrastructure have been put off in favor of other types of spending, and we need to make up for it now.

And I would like to call out any infrastructure attention given to decentralized wastewater needs and not just concentrated on maintaining and expanding the big pipe of municipal sewer. The National Onsite Wastewater Recycling Association has fought for years to get our onsite infrastructure a bigger piece of the federal funding pie, and more success has been reported recently.

It’s true that more than one-quarter of U.S. residents handle their waste through septic systems. So as an industry we shouldn’t be shy about demanding help for our customers who often struggle financially to maintain proper functioning treatment of their household waste stream. We are the best advocates for effective management of rural waste and promoting a cleaner environment for the benefit of all.


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