Septic treatment plan lacks support

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A regional septic-tank effluent treatment facility for the Flathead Valley likely will be a requirement sometime in the future, but right now there’s no buy-in from either government officials or local septic haulers.

Orlan Sorensen of Landmark Builders has been working with the Lakeside County Water and Sewer District to develop a facility with the capacity to accept all pumped domestic sewage in the county.

He estimates a receiving station would cost $1.5 million, with an adjoining compost center adding another $800,000 to the project.

The Lakeside district has natural sewage lagoons with an aeration system near the intersection of Montana 82 and U.S. 93 north of Somers that hold waste for about 180 days before it’s applied to a 160-acre irrigation site, said Rodney Olson, general manager of the district.

Sorensen, a Whitefish-based home builder, recently made a pitch for the public/private partnership to the county commissioners, asking them to pass an ordinance supporting such a project. The commissioners made no decision on his request.

Sorensen said the septic effluent pumped from some 22,000 septic tanks in the Flathead is applied to local farmland, and farmland is a disappearing commodity here. He sees the lack of state enforcement and the potential hazard of dumping 2.7 million gallons of raw sewage annually as a looming public health concern.

“The Health Department and the county commissioners know it’s a problem,” Sorensen said, noting that neither municipal treatment facilities nor the county landfill will take the septic effluent.

County Health Officer Joe Russell said applying the waste on open fields one day will come to an end.

“Getting septage into a treatment facility is a necessary thing,” Russell said. “This is really coming. After the subdivision booms, everything closed in and there will be less and less land available. There will come a day.”

Wade O’Myer, owner of A-1 Sanitation, acknowledged the difficulty in finding places to apply the waste from household septic tanks.

“It’s getting tougher and tougher, and there are some big changes coming, I think,” O’Myer said.

Olson said the Lakeside district gets calls every winter from septic haulers who can’t get into snow-laden or muddy fields.

“We literally can’t take it,” he said of the pumped waste. “It’s too strong” for the lagoon system.

Sorensen made a pitch to the county Health Board for the treatment facility, but the board also declined action on his proposal.

“They [Sorensen and the Lakeside district] would like regulations to drive the process,” Russell said. “The board wants demand to drive the process, and the property owners will drive it” if they no longer accept the septic sludge on their land.

Russell acknowledged septic effluent disposal is an area that’s under-regulated by the state.

“The state doesn’t have the manpower,” he said.

State solid-waste laws require septic waste to be tilled into the soil within six hours, treatment of the land with lime and removal of any inorganic solids, Sorensen. That just isn’t done, he added.

He further noted the state “doesn’t get involved” with soil testing at disposal sites. An engineering study done for Flathead County two years ago concluded that because of the lack of state monitoring, it’s difficult to say how much of a problem there is with the way septic effluent is handled here, he said.

Sorensen met recently with area septic haulers, but didn’t get any immediate buy-in from them, either.

It all boils down to money. Sorensen estimates it will cost 18 cents per gallon of sewage to fund the project and maintain the operation. Haulers currently pay 3 cents a gallon.

“The meeting with the pumpers didn’t fare well,” Sorensen admitted. “They figure they’ll lose business.”

O’Myer said higher rates would “take some getting used to.

“There would be a hit from the community for a while,” he said.

Sorensen said the added annual cost to homeowners would be about $15 per year, assuming tanks are pumped every five to seven years.

Olson said the Lakeside County Water and Sewer District board of directors supports the treatment facility if funding can be worked out and the state approves it.

Features editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or by email at lhintze@dailyinterlake.com.

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