State officials describe a proposed sewage application site near Bigfork as “excellent,” but the plan has drawn the ire of nearby landowners who say the thousands of gallons of waste dumped there annually will ruin their neighborhood.
About 30 Bigfork-area residents crowded last week’s meeting of the Flathead County-City Health Board, petitioning the board to intervene and prevent a proposed disposal site located just off Montana Highway 83 on Lee Road.
The application in question is a request by Duane Lee and Shur Clean Services of Bigfork to dispose between 250,000 and 300,000 gallons of septic tank waste and about 10,000 gallons of restaurant grease trap waste on site each year. The property is about 77 acres; 50 of those acres will be used for disposal.
The state’s Department of Environmental Quality licenses businesses to become pumpers. When they apply for a new disposal site, a county sanitarian inspects the site for various environmental requirements, including ground water, surface water, setbacks from buildings and soil quality among other things, said Renai Hill of DEQ’s waste and underground tank management bureau.
DEQ then reviews the operation and maintenance plan for the site, completes an environmental assessment checklist and sends the application to other advisory agencies before granting approval.
In this case, the environmental assessment checklist recommends approval of the Bigfork site in every case and says there would be “little or no impacts to the physical and human environment.” Hill describes the Lee property as an “excellent site.”
Area residents, however, cite a litany of problems with the location, arguing spreading waste there will contaminate ground water, pose a health risk to area residents, attract bears, hurt air quality and ruin the aesthetics of the neighborhoods.
“Right now the neighborhood looks down on a meadow,” James Bonser, a nearby landowner, said to the board. “If this is passed, it will be a barren field and smelly mess.”
The Lee property isn’t the first septic tank land application site in the area – two more are located within a half mile. Bonser said residents just recently learned of the other sites, and after investigating and interviewing neighbors, say those sites are in violation of state requirements. In addition to preventing the Lee site, they would like to see approval of those sites revoked.
The application process, neighbors say, doesn’t take into account public comment, so they started a petition opposing the project and collected 114 signatures. Thirteen people have called DEQ with questions or complaints about the Lee property, some more than once a day, Hill said.
Throughout the state, land application is a common type of disposal for sewage from septic tanks, portable toilets, restaurant grease traps and “sump pumpings,” which is generally waste from car washes.
With land application, waste is usually spread along a piece of property and then, according to state requirements, tilled into the ground within six hours of application.
There are 14 active land application sites in Flathead County and another 21 inactive – but approved – sites, Hill said. A dozen licensed septic tank pumpers are based in the county and eight more pumpers from other counties also do business here. One of those pumpers, she added, applies about 1.5 million gallons of waste each year.
“People, I think, are surprised a lot of times when they learn that this is how a lot of waste is disposed of,” Hill said. “They just assume it goes to a treatment facility. But it’s organic material and, if the pumper is abiding by state rules, then there’s normally no problems.”
In Flathead County, only Whitefish and Columbia Falls have wastewater and treatment facilities equipped to handle septic loads, Hill said.
Last week, Hill said, DEQ received the neighborhood petition as well as the final piece of the Lee property application. She expected her office to decide on the property and respond to the petition sometime this week.
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