Keeping Chemicals Out of the Creek

By Beacon Staff

About 10 years ago, Joni Emrick noticed an extremely high level of lead working its way from Kalispell’s sewer system down into the city’s Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant. Emrick, the plant’s manager, knew the contaminant must have been coming from a business in Kalispell, but she had no way of determining which one. Eventually, by driving around the city with an official from the Environmental Protection Agency, Emrick was able to locate the culprit: a radiator repair shop.

A test of what the radiator shop was discharging into the sewer confirmed her suspicions.

“There were actual chunks of lead that showed up in the sample,” Emrick said. “The amount of lead that they were putting into the system took up everybody’s capacity.”

The radiator repair shop changed its waste disposal practices, resolving the problem. But in subsequent years, the treatment plant has grappled with spikes in the levels of other contaminants. Shuttered businesses with large air conditioning units have dumped large amounts of phosphorus into the sewer. A leak from a service station on Meridian Road two years ago bled enough fuel into the system to affect how the treatment plant processed waste for a year. Other chemicals have passed through the plant with their origin unclear.

These previous occurrences of contamination, along with the wastewater treatment plant’s expansion to accommodate 5.4 million gallons per day has triggered an EPA requirement as part of the Clean Water Act that Kalispell implement an industrial pretreatment program, which must be in place by Sept. 1. At a recent work session, Rebecca J. Bodnar, a chemist at the plant and the coordinator of the pretreatment program, explained to the city council how the new procedures will affect the city’s businesses, and maintain the valley’s water quality.

The necessity of the pretreatment program is yet another byproduct of Kalispell’s current and future growth, which increases the likelihood that a business could dump potentially harmful toxic chemicals and heavy metals into the sewer system. The result could be corroded sewer pipes, injury to workers at the treatment plant from noxious fumes or even explosions, the pass through of the contaminants into Ashley Creek and eventually Flathead Lake, and damage to the facility, which is particularly susceptible to contamination since it uses microbes, not chemicals, to treat and filter the wastewater. And because the treatment plant recycles much of its sludge with Glacier Gold composting, it must ensure it isn’t providing a product loaded with heavy metals and toxins for valley residents to use as fertilizer.

Kalispell hopes to avoid an incident like what occurred in Helena recently, when hexavalent chromium was dumped into the sewer, killing off all the microbes at the wastewater plant there and eventually costing the city more than $20,000 to fix. Bodnar emphasized that the treatment plant has never had any major problems in Kalispell; in 2007 the EPA recognized the facility as the top wastewater treatment plant of its size in the country. And she does not anticipate any changes to how businesses must dispose of their waste.

“Sometimes bad stuff comes down the pipeline,” Bodnar said. “We have to figure out who’s responsible for it and how do we fix it.”

In March Bodnar will mail out a survey to roughly 800 businesses inquiring about the chemicals, cleaners, fuels and solvents they use, and their quantity. The one-page survey asks about everything from steam cleaners to dry cleaning facilities to photo-processing equipment.

Once businesses return the survey, Bodnar will compile a database of the chemicals discharged by the businesses, and develop a profile of the amounts of certain chemicals entering the system by establishing an annual sampling program of what’s going in and coming out of the plant, as well as typical levels for residential and commercial lines. Businesses discharging chemicals in need of pretreatment will have to fill out a more detailed survey.

Eventually she’ll use this data to figure out the local limits, and this summer the city council will need to pass an ordinance setting into law the amount of chemicals businesses can discharge into the sewer system. Setting the limits into law would allow the city to assess fines or other punishments to businesses that exceed their levels.

Bozeman and Missoula already have such programs in place, and new businesses accustomed to dealing with bigger cities already have protocols in place to accommodate discharge regulations. Wal-Mart, which plans to break ground on a Super Center in Hutton Ranch Plaza this spring, has already inquired about waste disposal for its photo-processing facility and automotive service center.

“This is not uncommon at all; it just is in Montana,” Bodnar said.

Should everything work out according to schedule, the EPA will approve the industrial pretreatment program by August.

“Right now, this is the best plant in the country,” Bodnar said. “We really want to keep it that way and continue to operate like we have been.”

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