A Ravalli County septic company's plan to spread human waste over 120 acres of property a half-mile from the Bitterroot River has neighbors and environmental groups fearing contamination of the river and local wells.
Brown's Septic Services Inc., based in Florence, has an agreement with rancher Ed Cummings to apply as much as 100,000 gallons of human excrement from residential septic tanks and 5,000 gallons of grease trap waste per year to portions of his 1,000-acre ranch outside Stevensville. The Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) is set to approve the agreement barring any problems identified before the comment period ends Jan. 12. There are close to 170 such sites around the state, according to DEQ.
The deal would be mutually beneficial to Brown's Septic Services and Cummings. The septic company wants to shorten the distance it transports the waste. (Some of it is currently land-applied on the outskirts of Missoula.) Cummings hopes the waste will improve his land's fertility by adding nutrients and balancing its pH level. There's also, he says, a modest financial incentive.
But neighbors like Dan Pace say they, and the river, will ultimately pay the price.
"There's an active stream 100 yards away," Pace says. "If you dump this waste there, and if you get run-off, or you get rain, guess where the sewage is going to end up? It's going to end up in the river and everyone's land downhill from the dump site. That doesn't make any sense to me. And the other neighbors feel pretty much the same way."
After inspecting the site, DEQ concluded in its October environmental assessment (EA) that the excrement poses no such threat, calling it "a beneficial reuse of a waste product." The EA drew about 30 comments, many more than most EAs, according to Renai Hill of DEQ's Solid Waste Section/Septic Tank Pumper Program. The response prompted the agency two weeks ago to release a supplemental EA to provide additional information on local hydrology and geology.
But no matter the science, Pace, for one, sides with a simple truth: "Shit don't go uphill."