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County eyes septage treatment, biosolids facility

by LYNNETTE HINTZE
Daily Inter Lake | October 30, 2021 12:00 AM

Flathead County has taken the first step in working toward a long-term solution for handling the county’s burgeoning septic waste by seeking firms or individuals interested in developing a septage treatment and biosolids composting facility.

The City-County Board of Health is advertising a request for qualifications, or RFQ, to develop a facility that would be a collaborative project involving the county, the three incorporated cities and some or all of the county water and sewer districts.

The county applied for and received $2 million in American Rescue Plan Act money from the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation and will use the money to begin identifying a site and getting design work done, according to county Health Officer Joe Russell.

“This [facility] is one of those projects allowable under ARPA funding,” Russell said.

The county will be required to match whatever amount is spent on the facility design and development, county Finance Director Amy Dexter said. The county so far has accepted $10 million in ARPA funding, and that could be a source of funding for the construction of such a facility.

Over the past decade, Flathead County has experienced rapid growth and as a result, the land that’s suitable and available for the disposal of septic waste has become quite limited, Russell said.

“We could get to the point where there’s no way to get rid of septage,” Russell said, adding that with all of the ongoing development, private septic haulers are getting squeezed out. Land application of septage disposal is becoming increasingly difficult as agricultural land is developed for residential housing.

Growth also has created a problem related to the disposal of municipal biosolids because of concerns related to the long-term viability of existing disposal methods, the RFQ notes.

THE CITY of Columbia Falls used to apply its septage waste on fields west of the Montana Veterans Home for about 25 years until the state told the city that property no longer was suitable for land application, according to Grady Jenkins, plant manager of Columbia Falls’ wastewater treatment plant.

For the past three years Columbia Falls has been hauling all of its septage waste to the county landfill — four loads per week at a weight of 5.5 tons per load, Jenkins said. Last year Columbia Falls disposed of 188 loads of waste, totaling 1,034 tons.

Columbia Falls Public Works Director Chris Hanley said a county septage treatment and biosolids composting facility is a need that’s bearing down on the Flathead Valley.

“It’s going to be a need at some point without a doubt, with just the sheer volume of people,” Hanley said. “The sooner we can come up with something, the better.”

He sees finding a location as one of the biggest obstacles.

The city of Whitefish has sludge drying beds at its wastewater treatment plant off Monegan Road. The sludge is spread out over several acres, has a sand filter and underdrains, allowing it to dry over time, Whitefish Public Works Director Craig Workman said.

Whitefish’s treated effluent is discharged into the Whitefish River under a Department of Environmental Quality permit. By the time the solids are ready to be hauled to the landfill, it’s essentially black dirt, Workman said.

“We estimate 2,500 pounds per day of dry solids; over the course of a year 500 tons,” he said. “We typically truck [to the landfill] every couple of years.

“I think it makes a lot of sense,” Workman said about a county facility. “Septic haulers really struggle to find cost-effective and acceptable ways of discharging waste. A conglomerate facility would be a huge benefit.”

Whitefish’s master plan for its wastewater treatment plant shows the potential for future composting at the 80-acre site that would eliminate the need for hauling the solids to the landfill, Worksman added.

Kalispell trucks a certain percentage of its sludge to the commercial composting facility in Flathead County — Glacier Gold at Olney. That facility has limitations with regard to accepting the quantity of municipal sludge generated, the RFQ notes.

Kalispell also hauls some sludge to the county landfill. The city’s public works director was unavailable to provide information about the quantity of sludge generated.

RUSSELL SAID the septage dilemma has been building for years.

“It’s not something new; we did an exploratory study before I retired,” Russell said. Russell retired in 2017 but agreed to step into his old job a year ago to help the county weather the Covid-19 pandemic after the county’s public health officer position became vacant.

There are several variables to be considered in developing a facility, Russell said.

“There’s finding a site that makes the most sense, depending on what we do with the water,” he said. “It would require treatment to the level it could be disposed of, or treatment to the level it could be accepted by a municipality.”

Land disposal provides very little treatment of a high strength waste, Russell said.

It’s expected the county’s septage treatment and composting facility would be co-located. It’s also anticipated that septage will be received, solid waste will be separated and the septage will be dewatered. The biosolids from the dewatering process would be composted and the water treated to be disposed on site by either a surface or subsurface application or delivered to a municipal wastewater plant for treatment and final disposal, according to the RFQ.

News editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 406-758-4421 or lhintze@dailyinterlake.com.