In a 2-1 vote last week, the Flathead County Commission opposed the purchase of a Lower Valley property under consideration as the top prospect for a regional septage treatment facility, rejecting the site despite having previously approved a $1.5 million buy-sell agreement for the 37-acre parcel at 305 Wylie Dike Road.
Commissioners Randy Brodehl and Brad Abell opposed the purchase of the property, which was slated to become a regional septage treatment plant and biosolids composting facility; Commissioner Pam Holmquist voted in favor.
“I think this is a private industry responsibility,” Brodehl said during the meeting. “Private industry hasn’t planned for this. Just because private industry didn’t plan for it doesn’t mean it’s not their responsibility and their lack of planning doesn’t mean that the county should step up and grow government.”
During the meeting, Brodehl repeatedly pressed a representative with HDR Engineering over the urgency of the situation and questioned the preliminary construction report put out by the firm., including costs of individual pieces of equipment. County officials, including former Flathead City-County Health Officer Joe Russell, have said the county has an urgent need for a new septage facility — a need that has only risen with the region’s rapid growth.
However, the county’s plan for the facility has been met with opposition from residents of the Lower Valley concerned with the prospect of diminishing property values, odors and proximity to Wiley Slough and the Flathead River.
At the meeting, the announcement that the planned facility would include paving stretches of Wiley Dike Road drew further ire from the public.
“The roads will not be quiet and safe,” said Mary Heaton during public comment. “Every day there are children who are riding their bikes and their horses up and down these roads … you will not be able to guarantee that these roads will be safe for our families and our lifestyles once this is put in place.”
“My main focus today is my, well I wrote disappointment, but quite frankly it’s my disgust at the level of cooperation and transparency that we’ve received from the commission,” said Daniel Tipton. “We deserve better from our elected officials. The three of you will be making decisions that will affect the rest of our lives.”
Brodehl suggested that creating a sewer district would be a better alternative than having the county government run the septage facility, and would still allow access to ARPA funding. The county has roughly $15 million in ARPA funds available for water and sewer projects undertaken by local government entities, $1.5 million of which was approved by the commissioners in a Oct. 21 vote for a buy-sell agreement with an intent to purchase the Lower Valley property.
According to the Flathead County Health Department, there are roughly 30,000 septic tanks in Flathead County with nearly 700 new permits issued in 2022 alone. On average, between 20,000 and 40,000 gallons of septage is pumped from the tanks each day, while the number of disposal sites are at a premium.
At an informational session in December, Bill Buxton, a representative of HDR Engineering, the firm in charge of designing the treatment plant, detailed the need for the new facility and summarized the lengthy deliberations that went into determining its best location.
According to Buxton, the health department last year reported receiving calls almost every day related to a lack of disposal sites, including from porta potty companies that were unable to find waste haulers with contracts that allowed for increased disposal. The local municipal wastewater treatment plants have stringent limits on the amount of waste they can accept from outside municipal limits. In addition, Glacier Gold, a company that recycles biosolid waste into compost, has hit capacity.
Of the half-dozen sites that meet the criteria for a regional septage facility, including easy access to highways, property size, connection to a public sewer and a centralized location within the county, the property at 305 Wylie Dike Road in the Lower Valley was considered the top prospect.
The property has easy access to two highways, ties into the Lakeside Water and Sewer District to dispose of liquid waste and is located near the district’s wastewater treatment lagoons. On March 9, the commissioners approved an interlocal agreement for the Lakeside Water and Sewer district to accept future effluent from the county’s proposed septage facility at the proposed Wiley Dike Road location.
HDR Engineering is designing the regional septage facility based on 20-year growth projections and would be able to treat roughly 5 million gallons of waste annually. The commissioners plan to discuss further options for the septage facility at their March 22 meeting.
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