Flathead County

County Signs Buy-Sell Agreement for Regional Septage Facility Property

Proposed regional treatment and biosolids plant continues to generate opposition from local landowners

By Micah Drew
Flathead County Courthouse on Main Street in Kalispell pictured May 4, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The Flathead County Commissioners at their July 25 meeting unanimously approved a buy-sell agreement for a 36.9-acre property in the Lower Valley that could serve as the site of a regional septage facility in the county. The purchase agreement for the property, located at 305 Wiley Dike Road, is for $1.5 million with a closing date for the sale on or before Sept. 15.

Plans for a regional septage facility have been in the works for a decade, according to county officials. Back in December, the county commissioners, along with HDR Engineering, the firm in charge of designing the treatment plant, gave public presentations detailing the need for the new facility and summarizing the lengthy deliberations that went into determining its best location. The facility is being designed using 20-year population projections and would be able to treat 5 million gallons of waste annually.

The commission approved a similar buy-sell agreement last November, before ultimately voting against the acquisition in March following public opposition to the proposed location.

Members of the public again raised concerns at the commissioners’ Tuesday meeting, including over alleged discrepancies in the property’s appraisal, environmental factors and the perceived impact to their own property values and livelihoods.

“One thing that I wanted to say to start is we have not used common sense and we have not used forward thinking in moving through this process,” said Cindy Basnett, who lives near the property and opposes the county’s location decision. “In Flathead County there’s an old joke; ‘set your clock back 10 years.’ We can’t afford to do that. It’s been part of our charm that we’re 10 years behind, but we can’t afford to think that way anymore.”

A sign in opposition to a proposed county septage treatment facility off of Wiley Dike Road in the Lower Valley area south of Kalispell on Nov. 29, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

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. 

Last year, the health department 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. 

The other primary method for disposing county septage waste is through “land application,” a process that includes injecting untreated septage into the soil. Over the years, the amount of local farmland which accepts waste for land application has decreased. 

John Tveit, who owns Ready Freddy Septic Service, vehemently disagreed with the proposed location, though he acknowledged the need for a regional facility. Tveit said that having fewer dumping fields than in the past was straining local pumping services, especially given increases in Flathead Valley housing that relies on septic tanks.

“Two years ago, I pumped more than 3 million gallons of septage,” Tveit said. “If we had a sewer treatment plant facility that would filter all that for me, it would be a blessing.”

However, Tveit also raised concerns over the proposed cost of utilizing the regional facility. A preliminary business plan produced by HDR Engineering estimates fees for septage pumpers could be around 13 cents per gallon, twice the cost of land application, an increase that Tveit would likely have to pass on to his customers.

“It’s like flipping the bird at every resident in the county who has a septic tank,” Tveit told the Beacon after the meeting. “I don’t know where they came up with that number, or why they can’t use property they already own.”

Many members of the public asked the commissioners why another location, such as one more centrally located near Kalispell, could not be found.

Whitney Aschenwald, the county’s project manager, said that more than a dozen locations had been reviewed after the commissioners voted against the Wiley Dike property in March. Of those properties, only a few met the criteria for a regional septage facility, including property size, easy highway access and proximity to an existing water treatment facility. One potential option in Columbia Falls was discounted after an environmental assessment raised too many concerns, while another property south of Kalispell was deemed far too expensive, at $9 million, for consideration, even as part of a larger county complex.

An existing 14-acre county property adjacent to Cemetery Road is less than half the size needed to lay out the septage facility, which brought the county back to the initial Lower Valley location as the top prospect.

Proposed site of a new county septage treatment facility off of Wiley Dike Road in the Lower Valley area south of Kalispell on Nov. 29, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The property has easy access to two highways, ties into the Lakeside Water and Sewer District (LWSD) to dispose of liquid waste and is located less than 2,000 feet from the district’s wastewater treatment lagoons. This spring, the commissioners approved an initial interlocal agreement for the LWSD to accept future effluent from the county’s proposed septage facility at the proposed Wiley Dike Road location. Currently, the district does not have the capacity to treat the expected volume of effluent from a future septage facility but is designing upgrades to its existing treatment facilities.

A new interlocal agreement is in the works between the county and LWSD, and the buy-sell agreement for the Wiley Dike Road property is contingent on finalizing that agreement. County officials said they’re working to “fine tune” the volume the agreement would cover, which could become a limiting factor for future growth in the Lakeside area.

The Evergreen Water and Sewer District has expressed support for the project, as have the Kalispell and Whitefish chambers of commerce, City of Columbia Falls, the Flathead Basin Commission and Montana Department of Environmental Quality.

The county currently has around $17 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds that can be dedicated to water and sewer projects, $7 million of which needs to be expensed by the end of next year, putting a timeline on moving forward with the facility.

Nearby property owners told the commissioners they would not stop fighting the septage facility.

“We will be here as a thorn in your side throughout this whole process, unwavering,” said Dan Tipton. “You’re messing with our homes to give yourselves a little political feather in your cap. We’re not going to silently sit back and let it happen.”