Monday, December 11, 2023

DEQ says wastewater system near Holland Lake could be leaking

by JUSTIN FRANZ Montana Free Press
| September 27, 2023 12:00 AM

The Montana Department of Environmental Quality has asked the U.S. Forest Service to test if its wastewater system near Holland Lake is leaking and contaminating the lake or groundwater. The investigation comes after Save Holland Lake — a group organized last year against a proposed expansion of the nearby Holland Lake Lodge — filed a complaint alleging the federal agency has been ignoring for months its concerns about the wastewater system near Condon.

“(The Forest Service) has known about this issue for months and they have refused to do anything about it,” said Bill Lombardi, a member of Save Holland Lake.

The wastewater system at Holland Lake serves both a campground and the Holland Lake Lodge. The water is treated by natural and biochemical processes inside a lagoon before being sprayed into the forest. Such systems are common in rural communities because they have lower maintenance requirements. However, in recent years, the Forest Service has not pumped water out of the lagoons to spray into the forest as much as it did in the early 2000s, despite there not being a drop in the number of people using the facilities at Holland Lake. David Roberts, another Save Holland Lake volunteer, said that shows the lagoons are likely leaking more than what is legally permitted. That recognition prompted the DEQ investigation.

According to DEQ spokesperson Moira Davin, DEQ design standards allow lagoons to leak up to six inches a year. That measure is based on a nationally recognized standard. Davin also said that “leakage does not necessarily mean that nitrate or pathogens will reach Holland Lake, as both are degraded in the natural environment.”

After the complaint and an initial investigation, DEQ asked the Forest Service to conduct its own testing to determine just how much waste was leaking from the lagoons. According to Davin, a leakage test is done by installing two pipes into the lagoon. One pipe is perforated so it shows the actual lagoon level and the other control pipe is closed. After 14 days, and accounting for variables, the difference between the two levels in the pipes is a rough equivalent of the leakage rate. DEQ initially asked USFS to conduct the leakage test by Sept. 17, but the federal agency requested a two-month extension, until November. DEQ granted that request.

Daniel Hottle, a spokesperson for the U.S. Forest Service’s Northern Region, said that both the Holland Lake Lodge and the nearby campground will have to close for about two weeks so the wastewater system is idle, allowing officials to conduct the test.

“If the test demonstrates a need, any necessary repairs will be completed,” Hottle said.

Members of Save Holland Lake said they were disappointed that DEQ had given USFS an extension, raising concerns that doing the test later in the year — when the temperatures are colder or there’s usually more precipitation — could render the results of the test useless. Roberts noted that Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality requires that such testing be confined to the months of July and August when the ground is dry and there’s less precipitation.

Moira, the DEQ spokesperson, told Montana Free Press that the only thing possibly preventing the test from being done late in the year would be if the surface area of the lagoon freezes. She said that DEQ officials believe that doing the test in the fall is actually the ideal time because there will be little evaporation, thus giving them a better idea of what leaks there might be in the system.

While members of Save Holland Lake said they were concerned about how a leak might be impacting the local environment now — Holland Lake and the nearby creek are a critical bull trout habitat — they also worry about what would happen if the lodge there is expanded. The Holland Lake Lodge has been the subject of fierce debate in the last year after the community learned that an out-of-state developer, POWDR of Park City, Utah, was partnering with the current owner of the special use permit to expand the facility.

A 2022 proposal called for the demolition of 10 structures and the construction of all new ones, including a 13,000-square-foot building dubbed the “Bob Marshall Lodge” with 28 rooms. The expansion would increase the capacity at Holland Lake Lodge from 50 guests per night to 156 per night. Late last year, the Forest Service told the developer that it would need to resubmit its plans after finding inaccuracies within it. POWDR officials said at the time they planned to resubmit their proposal, but nearly a year later they have yet to do so.

Freelance reporter Justin Franz can be reached at The Montana Free Press is a Helena-based nonprofit newsroom. To read the article as originally published, click here.

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