It’s kind of a thing for septic pumpers and haulers to have puns on their trucks. One time, Conrad Eckert had one that said “Caution: Hauling political promises.”

Eckert took over his dad’s pumping and hauling business in 2012. Eckert senior started Eckert’s Septic Services in 1969, and his son has since renamed the business Eckert’s Patriot Pumpers.

A lot has changed since Eckert took over, perhaps the worst being a lack of land available for dumping his loads of sewage. As the population in Ravalli County grows and new residents look outside of city limits to settle down, city pipes aren’t there to handle their waste.

Septic systems come with a tradeoff. Living in an area without a sewer system means people have to manage their own waste. Something that remains consistent, however, wherever you live, is that the waste has to go somewhere.

And that’s where Eckert comes in. 

He drives around in his truck — bedecked with the American flag, a bald eagle and “We The People” on the side — and pumps people’s septic systems. Pumping is required about every five years to keep a septic system working properly. The solids and liquids — poop, pee, grease, scum, sludge and garbage — are referred to as septage. Septage contains high concentrations of nitrogen and phosphorus that can be too much for municipal wastewater treatment systems. In many cases, that septage is spread on a farmer’s field to serve as fertilizer for pasture grass. 

That practice is called “land application,” and for Montanans who aren’t connected to municipal sewer systems, it’s one of the most common ways to dispose of solid waste.

“We’ve had people call us and tell us they’ve seen pumpers dumping in the [Bitterroot] river. When they get there it’s just washed down the stream.”

Conrad Eckert, owner of Eckert’s Patriot Pumpers

Eckert doesn’t have a land application site in Ravalli County right now. One he’s used in the past is out of commission because the owner is considering selling the land for development. He can drive septage to the Missoula municipal treatment plant, but he knows of others who end up without a legal place to dump. 

“We’ve had people call us and tell us they’ve seen pumpers dumping in the [Bitterroot] river. When they get there it’s just washed down the stream,” Eckert said.

North of Ravalli County, in Flathead County, something similar is unfolding. 

Both of counties have fairly large rural swathes, high levels of population growth, and influxes of people who want to live on acreage that may once have been available for dumping septage.

According to U.S. census data, Flathead County is the fastest growing micropolitan area in the country. As more people move in and the practice of land application becomes more difficult, Flathead County is trying to figure out what to do with its waste. A proposed solution — building a facility to collect septic system waste and turn it into compost — strikes some locals as a no-brainer. Others view the idea as a condemnation of their way of life.

LOCAL SOLUTION TO A REGIONAL PROBLEM?

Montana’s Department of Environmental Quality is in charge of overseeing land application sites and licensing pumpers. 

DEQ Solid Waste Section Supervisor Fred Collins said not all pumpers dump their loads on fields, but land application has been a primary method of solid waste disposal because of the availability of land, the limited infrastructure required and maxed-out capacity at city wastewater treatment plants. 

An approved land application site has to check quite a few boxes: It must be far from homes, surface water, groundwater, roads, drinking water supplies and slopes. Pumpers have to submit an operation and maintenance plan to DEQ indicating the equipment they plan to use, what type of crops are going to grow and the type of waste that will be applied. All those considerations limit the land that can be used for solid waste disposal and ultimately point toward areas that could also be suitable for residential development.

Collins said the Flathead Valley relies heavily on land application because the Kalisepll wastewater treatment plant doesn’t accept septage. He thinks the proposed septage facility could be a good solution to a regional problem.

“In waste, generally, it’s sometimes nicer and a little bit easier to manage when it’s centralized,” Collins said.

Centralization is something that those in favor of a septage facility emphasize.

The proposed septage facility in Flathead County would consist of two parts: treatment and composting. Pumpers would bring their loads to the facility, and a system would separate solids from liquids. The system would connect to Lakeside’s water treatment plant and direct the liquids there, where they would be treated and used for irrigation, a practice already in place. The solids would stay on-site and be turned into compost. The facility would include mechanisms to control odor. 

Flathead County received a $15 million federal grant, part of COVID-relief money, in 2021 for the facility’s construction, and plans to buy property on Wiley Dike Road in Somers for $1.5 million. The timeline for completion is tentative, and DEQ hasn’t yet received an application for the facility.

Flathead County Commissioner Randy Brodehl said the problem of losing land to waste disposal has been ongoing for years due to population growth. 

Flathead County plans to purchase this property on Wiley Dike Road for $1.5 million and eventually build a septage facility there. Credit: Credit: Keely Larson / MTFP

“Everyone that’s developing out there, they’re looking at how many lots they can get on plots,” Brodehl said. “Very few people see dealing with septage as a high priority.”

Pumpers, unsurprisingly, don’t fall in that category.

Dustin Thornton with A1 Sanitation in Kalispell has a different take on the proposed facility. He said it would be the last place he would go.

“All the stuff they’re buying for millions of dollars, I’ve been piecing together for years,” Thornton said.

“Everyone that’s developing out there, they’re looking at how many lots they can get on plots. Very few people see dealing with septage as a high priority.”

Flathead County Commissioner Randy Brodehl

Unlike Eckert, Thornton has his own land application sites. A1 Sanitation has six septic trucks – also adorned with puns — and Thorton remembers that fleet being sufficient to serve the whole valley at one point. Potential construction of a new facility that could allow for more pumpers in the area has him worried about the health of his business. 

Thornton’s advantage is access to land, he said, and he sees the facility as leveling the playing field for everyone else in the business after he’s invested in his own land application sites and advanced treatment methods.

“I’m all for competition … but the government stepping in and just saying, ‘Well, we’re going to even it out.’ it’s pretty frustrating,” Thornton said.

PUBLIC CONCERNS

At a crowded public meeting in Kalispell on Dec. 1, local residents expressed a variety of concerns. Some spoke up about increased truck traffic and a big, ugly facility changing the character of the rural area. Others voiced worry about the nearby floodplain. Some were simply shocked to learn about land application and the use of human waste as compost. 

The proposed septage facility wouldn’t be the only place in Montana to reuse human waste. Mountain West Products, producer of a compost called Glacier Gold, already has two locations in northwest Montana.

Glacier Gold takes sludge from the city of Kalispell’s wastewater treatment plant, combines it with sawdust or bark, dries it out and sells it in bags. Human waste, like any other fertilizer, is filled with nitrogen and phosphorus, two nutrients that help plants grow. 

Joe Warner, who’s worked in sales with Glacier Gold since 1995, said the forest products used to create the compost would have been disposed of in years past, but today, combined with the sludge, it contributes to a useful product.

“We’re taking two problems on this planet and creating something positive,” Warner said.

Anna Mahlen has used Glacier Gold before, but, after learning what’s actually in it at the Dec. 1 meeting, she vowed never to use it again. Mahlen has lived just across the street from the site of the proposed facility in Somers for more than 20 years. Once the facility is built, she says, she could throw a baseball from her property and hit it.

A big sign on her fence with a “stop” symbol and a poop emoji encourages others to fight the septage facility. She worries about increased truck traffic and what the plant would do to her property values. Mahlen said she doesn’t have a lot of money to leave to her kids, but she wants to leave them her home. 

“It just won’t be the same,” she said.

Dean Robbins, another neighbor of the proposed facility, has also used Glacier Gold, and said he’s not put off by human excrement. But he doesn’t think this is the right place for the facility. “I’ll withhold judgment about whether it’s needed,” he said, but he’s certain the location is wrong.

County Commissioner Brodehl acknowledged that other locations in the area might be better suited to the facility, but this one was for sale. The facility also needs to be near a cooperating wastewater treatment plant like the one in Lakeside. Brodehl said treatment plants in Kalispell, Whitefish, Colombia Falls and Big Fork are already operating at capacity.

The county is scheduled to purchase the property on Jan. 13, after an environmental review and business plan are completed. Pete Melnik, Flathead County administrator, said infrastructure is one way county governments can actually address problems. They can’t build apartments or houses, he said, but they can build infrastructure to support growing communities. As far as the Wiley Dike Road property goes, Melnik sees a lot of pluses: It’s centrally located, the infrastructure is already there and the property is for sale.

“The elements are conspiring to put it there,” Melnik said.

FIRST OF ITS KIND

The Somers septage facility, with its composting capacity, would be the first of its kind in Montana, but not in the region. 

The wastewater treatment plant in Coeur d’Alene has been biocomposting for more than 30 years. Instead of taking septage, it uses waste gathered from its municipal sewer system.

Bill Martin, assistant wastewater director for the city, described the material that gets added to wood chips to make the compost as “chocolate cake.” Apparently the consistency is similar.

After the cake is combined with the woodchips, heavy metals, dangerous bacteria and odors are removed, making it safe enough to use on a vegetable garden. Martin said, that for the most part people are all for it, but he understands the concerns of those who aren’t.

“My advice to them is, you know, I get it, but your flowers don’t care,” Martin said.

Eckert, Ravalli County, remembers his dad at one point being in charge of seven counties in northeastern Montana. When he pumped septic tanks, it was normal for the waste to go right back onto his customers’ property. People understood that was the tradeoff. 

People moving into western Montana today, he added, don’t have that same conception of waste. He drew up plans for a septage facility in Ravalli County 15 years ago, but no one saw the need at the time.

“You flush a toilet, it goes away and that’s it and then it’s gone,” Eckert said. “So, it’s education. It’s getting to understand that it’s got to go some place.” 

Insightful reporting from local reporters on how their communities are responding to tough challenges with potential solutions.

latest stories

Keely Larson

Keely Larson worked for two community newspapers in southwest Montana before starting the University of Montana's environmental and natural resources journalism graduate program. During her first year of grad school, she freelanced for Outside Business Journal and the Montana Standard and received the Crown Reporting Fellowship. Keely is MTFP's fire reporting intern for summer 2022.