by Michael Howell
Several septic pumping companies in the Bitterroot Valley are facing a crisis since one of the best places to dump their septage trucks, at the wastewater treatment plant in Missoula, has reduced the amount of septage it will accept from out-of-county sources. At the end of last year, septic pumpers all over western Montana were informed by the Missoula Wastewater Treatment Plant that the amount of septage dumping they would accept from out-of-county sources was going to be reduced by 60% and that they would be closed to all septic dumping for a month while the system’s “digester” underwent maintenance and some upgrades. Now, about three months after the maintenance has been completed, those restrictions remain in effect.
According to Nate Gordonn, lab and pretreatment manager at the Missoula plant, until something changes significantly these restrictions will remain in effect. He said closing down and cleaning the digester is a costly and disruptive event and that engineers studying the system found that over the last five years contributions from the city’s sewer system and in-county septage dumping have remained fairly constant, whereas during the same period contributions from out-of-county septage dumping has been on a rapidly increasing trajectory.
“We can no longer accept unlimited amounts of septage from out of the county,” said Gordonn.
Gordonn said that the plant receives septage dumping from many counties outside of Missoula County, including Mineral, Granite, Lake, Flathead, Powell and Silver Bow Counties, but the major contributor by far is Ravalli County. In 2022, Ravalli County pumper trucks alone delivered more than 1.4 million gallons of septage to the Missoula treatment plant. The new cap on out-of-county septage at the plant is set at 60,000 gallons per month, about 720,000 gallons per year.
The impacts of the restrictions on individual septic dumpers in the Bitterroot valley varies depending on how much septage they are able to dump locally through land application, for one thing. Those alternatives are presently limited, and the possibility of new land application sites are close to non-existent due to the requirements placed upon the property by the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), which permits the activity, and the ongoing loss of potential sites due to residential development.
Some of those restrictions include the site being eight feet to groundwater with no more than a 3% grade in winter and no more than a 6% grade for summertime dumping. It must be 150 feet from any waterway or county roadway and over 500 feet from any habitable structure.
At least one company in the valley is already hauling their septage to the municipal treatment plant in Helena, although the practice may not be sustainable due to the cost. The Missoula Treatment Plant charges $185 for an annual permit to dump septage, plus 6 cents for every gallon dumped. Helena’s plant has no permit fee but charges 8 cents per gallon to dump and that price may soon rise.
This has some septic pumpers in the valley screaming for help. Conrad and Tonya Eckert of Eckert’s Patriot Pumpers are feeling especially frustrated since they foresaw this coming crisis decades ago and over the last decade have been quite vocal about it, warning public officials but not getting any action.
Last March, they publicly raised their concerns once again in a letter to the State of Montana, the Ravalli County Commissioners and DEQ, asking them to address the situation.
“For the last 20 years we have been stressing to Ravalli County and especially the last 10 years that they needed to think about how they are going to handle the septic tank septage: more subdivisions mean more septic tanks go in, means less land application sites are available. Between regulations of land application, population and topography land application sites are pretty much a thing of the past in Western Montana (We’ve been looking)… For us alone 90% of our pumping is in Ravalli County. We have a yearly maintenance schedule for residential and commercial tanks we pump so they can continue to operate their households or businesses, we have house & business sales that have to be pumped before a sale can go through, along with the emergency household or business that backs up at any given point. What do we tell our customers when their system is backed up and we have used up our allotted 10 dumps for the month?” wrote the Eckerts.
“We couldn’t get anyone to understand what was coming,” Conrad Eckert told the Bitterroot Star, “but now it has hit us.” He said his company had one land application site this year, but it was currently inaccessible. He said, given the current limit of 10 truckloads per month to dump in Missoula, his business has been cut back by 40% in winter and 60% in summer.
“It’s a huge impact,” said Eckert. He said he always kept a lookout as he serviced the public for potential land application sites in the valley but hasn’t spotted any. He said he has talked to state agencies including DNRC and the Bureau of Land Management in search of sites but can’t find anything available.
According to Eckert, the only long-term solution he can see is a local processing facility located in Ravalli County, either in partnership with the existing municipal and district sewage treatment facilities or a new facility devoted to septage treatment. He and his wife have done a lot of research into those options which would involve the installation of new headworks as well as increased storage capacity, but the cost is daunting.
Jeff Burrows, County Commissioner and Chairman of the Ravalli County Board of Health, said the county was aware of the problems related to the new restrictions at the Missoula Wastewater Treatment Plant.
“We have recently talked to managers of the treatment facilities in Hamilton and Victor about the modifications that might be needed at their facility in terms of headworks, screening and processing as well as storage capacity,” said Burrows. “We are looking for grants both state and federal and looking at our possibilities.”
Burrows said that engineers were already looking at the situation and initial cost estimates were staggering. He said the municipalities and sewer district treatment plants in the valley have all expressed a willingness to be involved but they are not willing to foot the cost of the needed improvements.
According to Burrows, the cost of upgrading the headworks alone at one local treatment plant could be about $3 million. But the current storage capacity is also crucial and could add significantly to the costs.
According to manager Nate Gordonn, the digester at the Missoula plant has a 695,000-cubic-foot holding tank. He said the digester acts like a large stomach, holding a mix of liquid and solid ingredients being digested by bacteria and has to maintain a good balance at a proper level of acidity. He said septage from septic tanks is a lot more concentrated than sewage coming in from a municipal sewage system. He said the difference in pH levels is significant, with sewage coming in at a pH level of 4 while septage could be as high as a pH level of 10. Adding too much septage into the same size tank can upset the digester by making it too acidic.
Burrows said that an alternative to using several existing sites would be to build a new central site devoted to septage dumping. Kalispell acquired a site in September near Somers on which it plans to build a new regional septage treatment center at an estimated cost of $15 to $17 million. He said at this point it’s hard to say which alternative would end up costing more, but they had engineers looking into it.
Burrows said it might even be possible to build a grant-funded facility and have it operated privately if the septic fees could cover the operational costs. Even another possibility might be the imposition of a county tax related to septic usage. He said there was a lot to be figured out and it was going to take some time.
“We have to take this seriously,” said Burrows. “Most of our county residents are on septic systems. This will be an ongoing discussion and ultimately at some point a grant request of some sort will have to be made to the state or the feds.”