Southwest Montana is about to have a serious poop problem.
The fecal furor could put people out of business and leave rural residents holding the, ah, bag.
Because of potential cost overruns of $1.5 million to the ongoing upgrade of Anaconda-Deer Lodge County’s Wastewater Treatment Plant, the county has stopped accepting septic waste from outlying counties, including Butte-Silver Bow.
Since the plant was built in 1985, it has taken rural septic waste for a small fee with virtually no limitations.
But no more, says Bill Everett, ADLC chief executive.
Everett issued an order July 1 to that effect, and the ADLC commissioners voted unanimously to support Everett’s decision a week later.
Because no other municipality or county in the area accepts unrestricted septic waste, this impacts rural residents in Butte-Silver Bow, Powell, and Granite counties.
Some residents may not yet be aware of the problem. Ashley Holmes, office assistant for Hoffman’s R&M Services and Excavation, a septic operator in Butte, said that so far they’ve been able to handle the problem themselves by storing the excess overnight and their customers haven’t been informed.
Holmes said that Hoffman’s services rural customers in outlying rural parts of BSB county including the Melrose and Divide areas.
But some customers are very much aware and worried. Matt Anderson, shop and truck supervisor for Sun Mountain Logging and Lumber on the edge of Deer Lodge’s city limits, said his company doesn’t know what it will do. Some of Sun Mountain's business is outside city limits, and what's inside the city limits is still on a septic system.
Anderson said that because Sun Mountain’s septic is in a high groundwater area, his company has to get its septage pumped out every other day. He said he's hoping the city of Deer Lodge can find a way to accommodate Sun Mountain's septic waste.
But Trent Freeman, Deer Lodge's public works superintendent, issued a press release last week to say the city of Deer Lodge can't take septic material from those outside the city limits.
Freeman said accepting outside septage would be “problematic” for Deer Lodge’s recently upgraded wastewater treatment plant. He said the city of Deer Lodge has to protect its financial investment into its upgraded facility.
Daniel Reddish, Philipsburg mayor, said his tiny town of around 800 “has been approached” about taking rural septage, but Philipsburg’s wastewater treatment facility “is not adequate to take additional material from outside of town.”
Reddish said Philipsburg needs to do its own wastewater treatment plant upgrades.
BSB county does take 3,000 gallons a day from septic “pump and dumpers,” as septic companies are often called, in the summer months only. Some who spoke to The Montana Standard for this story said BSB county doesn’t limit how much it's willing to receive in the winter months. But Bill Andrene, BSB county metro sewer plant supervisor, said the 3,000 gallons a day limit is “going to continue” and won’t just be a summer-long policy.
The Butte-based plant has another limitation. Andrene said BSB metro sewer only accepts domestic septage from homeowners. The Mining City’s municipal waste system won't allow commercial septic material to come in from outside of town.
What's a rural resident or business to do?
The only reason the current situation hasn’t turned into a crisis for Sun Mountain Logging and Lumber is because local farmers are busy irrigating the land, Anderson said. That has kept the groundwater table low.
But that irrigation schedule is ending now, he said.
The problem isn’t going away any time soon. Everett said the moratorium on accepting septic waste from outlying counties will be for two years, and ADLC is looking at raising rates, possibly as much as $100 per load. That rate increase will include ADLC rural residents.
DeDe Morse, who co-owns RD Septic Pumping in Anaconda with her husband Rick, says they had 32 loads last month. If the rates increase to $100 a load, that could equal $3,200 a month per dumping company for the county.
“That’s a lot of money,” she said.
ADLC has taken septic waste from rural residents and rural businesses in outlying counties and charged a minimal fee for it for years, says Everett. At $26.50 per dump fee for rural users, that's not fair to Anaconda residents who are now paying $315 a year for sewer, say various county officials. Ed Janney, a Dowl engineer working with ADLC on its wastewater treatment plant issues, said the $26.50 dump fee was established when Anaconda city dwellers paid $5 a month for sewer.
Andrene would not comment on how much BSB county charges for outside septic waste.
Morse says she is worried she and her husband will go out of business because of Anaconda’s waste moratorium and potential fee increase.
“We’re in a pickle,” Morse said. “We can’t service our customers.”
She said that since the moratorium began, she and her husband have had to turn away a man with a sick wife and homeowners at Georgetown Lake.
“We’ve lost business over it,” Morse said. “It’s cut our business in half.”
Glen Wyant, owner of GW Septic Pumping, also out of Anaconda, said that with 75% of his customers living outside of ADLC, he also fears for the future of his company.
“It’s tremendously affecting my business,” he said.
Wyant was working last week on an application to the Department of Environmental Quality to spread rural septic waste on a landowner’s property.
DEQ permits what is called “land application” of septic waste. Karen Ogden, DEQ spokesperson, said that the DEQ permitting process for that can take anywhere from two months to a year. DEQ has to do an environmental assessment before a permit can be issued.
That may not be soon enough for many rural homeowners and businesses in southwest Montana. Morse said her husband generally pumps about 30 septic systems from April to October.
Gene Connell, Missoula Wastewater Treatment Plant superintendent, said land application is "shutting down."
"Landowners are choosing not to allow that anymore because of neighbors' complaints," Connell said.
Missoula is one municipality that does take outlying rural septic waste. Connell said Missoula's Wastewater Treatment facility's fees are $0.04 a gallon. He said a typical truck load is usually about 2,000 gallons, which makes the cost about $80 a load.
But Missoula also charges an annual permit fee of $150 a year. Connell said that transporting the septic from distances such as Granite and Powell counties would likely be prohibitive.
Connell also had what he called a "philosophical question" about the issue.
"Is it appropriate for municipal infrastructure to allow unsewered areas to get treatment at their facility?" he asked. "But, it has to go somewhere."
Morse said “poop is poop.”
But Freeman’s news release about the city of Deer Lodge’s Wastewater Treatment Plant limitations says that because of the way it’s handled, rural waste is not comparable to the urban variety.
Septic waste puts additional stress on municipal wastewater facilities, he said in his news release.
“Septic waste is highly concentrated with loads that can easily exceed 50 or even 100 times the amount contained in an equal volume” of urban waste coming in through underground sewer lines.
Another concern Freeman noted for the city of Deer Lodge is that not all rural septic systems carry just human fecal matter.
He said rural “pump and dumpers” can also bring in sand and oil separators and grease traps from rural restaurants.
“Even a single load of these other wastes could cause serious trouble at the plant and need to be avoided,” Freeman wrote.
Collins said the Missoula plant's philosophy is that it can provide a service to the larger community by accepting outside sewage, but "if it got to the point where it would cause serious problems, we would have to review that."
What caused the cost overruns at the ADLC plant?
Smelter waste, called slag, has been accumulating in ADLC’s human waste water ponds for 34 years – and it’s now going to cost the county at least around $1 million to fix.
But various ADLC officials say that by the time the upgrades are complete, the cost will likely rise to $1.5 million.
Currently, Anaconda ratepayers are on the hook for a total of $4 million in upgrades. Terry Vermeire, ADLC commission chair, said that cost was already built into the $315 a year sewer fee that Anaconda homeowners began to pay a handful of years ago.
Everett said he is in talks with Atlantic Richfield Company, the responsible party, to pony up on the extra cost.
Atlantic Richfield is not yet saying if it will pick up the tab on the construction overruns.
The ADLC Wastewater Treatment Plant has been collecting slag in the bottom of its wastewater ponds since the plant was built in 1985, say officials. The two ponds are across the street from the 130-acre slag pile, caused by decades of copper smelting, along Montana Highway 1.
Workers at the ADLC treatment plant have seen what one called “black snow” at the facility in the winter due to wind driving the slag to the human waste ponds. That the ponds contained black smelter waste mixed in with what human's evacuate came as no surprise.
But how extensive the problem was shocked county officials and sanitarian workers.
Michael Abendhoff, Atlantic Richfield Company spokesperson, said via email that the company and the county are “working together” to understand the problem.
Janney said that two-thirds of the aerators that send oxygen into the waste ponds — which helps with treatment — are broken. He thinks it’s because of excess weight caused by the slag.
The slag has also impacted engines that send oxygen through the aerators into the ponds. One engine required repair, and the others are less efficient than they should be, Janney said.
Abendhoff said the “research to understand the impacts is not yet complete.” He said the slag is “present in the sludge and has complicated the removal.
“Atlantic Richfield and ADLC are working to find a solution to allow the cleanout to be completed and minimize future impacts,” he said through email.
The slag created a “false floor” to the southernmost waste pond, and getting it out could add six to eight weeks of work to the project, say county officials. Plant workers hope to get the southern pond mucked out before winter sets in.
Work on the northern pond is expected to begin next year.
ADLC is having to send its human waste from the treatment facility to the Environmental Protection Agency-approved toxic waste repository designed for heavy metal contamination outside of the small community of Opportunity. That price tag is also part of the cost overruns, as that requires additional hauling.
Everett said every wastewater treatment plant has sludge.
“But not slag,” he said.
In the meantime, what are rural homeowners and businesses in southwest Montana to do?
That is a question that doesn't appear to have an answer. Family-owned septic pumpers, such as Morse’s in Anaconda, seem to be in dire straits. And while the rural public may not fully be aware of what it’s in for, many, particularly those who can’t afford to truck septic waste to far-away Missoula, could get a shock all too soon.
“I don’t know what to do,” Morse said.