Lower Valley residents complain about a sewage treatment plant

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Residents living near Wiley Slough in the Lower Valley say they enjoy a rural lifestyle with a variety of wildlife roaming their properties, but fear this would be lost if a county proposal for a new wastewater treatment plant is being implemented in the area.

Jennifer Tipton says her family has an orchard and raises cattle on their property.

“We’re really living the American dream, but lately it’s become a nightmare,” she said when neighbors learned the borough was considering buying land on Wiley Dike Road for the facility.

“It’s hard to imagine the county stealing the equity in my home and my quality of life,” she added.

District commissioners approved a purchase-sale agreement on Oct. 21 with intent to purchase 36.9 acres and said the document gives the district an opportunity to begin further analysis of the property. The potential closing date for the sale is January 2023.

A group of about 25 neighbors concerned about the proposal rallied at Thursday’s county commissioner’s meeting, with a handful making public comments opposing the plant’s location in their neighborhood.

Anna Mahlen told the inspectors that she kayaks out onto the swamp while often watching otters play in the water. Just that morning, Mahlen said, she saw a heron in the swamp eating fish.

“This septic tank isn’t just affecting me and my neighbors,” she said. “Human waste is a biological hazard and you will force our families to live right next to it. These proposed changes threaten the character of our neighborhood and the landscape.”

Neighbors questioned whether the land would be usable for the facility due to the soils on the property and its location on floodplain, as well as its proximity to conservation features on nearby properties. The Flathead County GIS Department map shows a portion of the property within the 100-year and 500-year flood plains.

Others said building an industrial facility in a residential area would mean large trucks would have to make multiple trips a day on gravel roads to reach the facility. They also suggested that the $1.5 million sale price was too much for the property.

Russ Heaton said one question hung over the entire proposal.

“Why would you build an industrial facility like this in an area surrounded by residential, agricultural and conservation areas?” he asked.

Addressing the comments, Commissioner Pam Holmquist said there were still many reviews needed before the district could make a final decision on the location of the facility on the Wiley Dike Road property.

“It’s not a done deal,” she said. “There’s still a lot of research to be done.”

The county has said the purchase-sale agreement only allows officials to conduct tests on the property and proceed with an appraisal because state law prohibits the county from purchasing a property above market value.

Holmquist said the project is still in the “early stages.”

“Although we have believed for many years that this is necessary, we have not worked on it for 15 years,” she said. “This is one of those things that we knew would be needed over time and when the money came from the [American Rescue Plan Act]the health department suggested we look into this because resources are limited to sewage.”

The county has experienced rapid growth over the past decade and as a result the land suitable for disposal of sewage waste has become quite limited. The county has an estimated 30,000 wastewater treatment systems.

HDR Engineering is in the process of preparing a plan and design for the wastewater treatment plant and biosolids composting plant. The study is expected to be completed by the end of the year, including an estimate of the cost of constructing the facilities.

The engineer analyzed the district’s needs, taking into account growth forecasts for 20 and 40 years.

The treatment plant is expected to be able to process 5 million gallons of waste and wastewater for the county annually.

While the composting facility for biosolids — the byproduct of wastewater treatment — would serve the wastewater treatment plant, it could also have the potential to serve the county’s communities.

The county plans to place a page on its website at https://flathead.mt.gov/ with details about the proposal.

Feature Editor Heidi Desch can be reached at 758-4421 or [email protected]

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