The controversial Mullan Road Corridor Sewer Project is expected to come before Missoula County commissioners next week for a final vote. The political dispute has centered around the sharp tax increase that residents of the Mullan Road area will experience to pay for the project.
Taking a backseat to the financial issue has been the environmental question. Proponents of the sewer extension say the project will protect Missoula’s drinking water and rivers. Residents who oppose the plan counter that their septic systems are in good working condition and the problem is not of immediate concern.
The affected area includes about 900 homes with a variety of septic systems, some new and efficient and some predating the first permitting laws of the 1960s.
“Septic systems, even if maintained properly, can degrade groundwater,” says Karen Knudsen, program director of the Clark Fork Coalition. According to Knudsen, her group has not taken a stand on the current Mullan Road project, but feels it is imperative to get the area on a sewer system eventually. Septic waste breaks down into nitrates which can travel through groundwater and contaminate rivers. This has been a recurrent problem with the Clark Fork River, where the influx of nitrates (sometimes referred to as “nutrient loading”) has caused a harmful overgrowth of algae.
Missoula County has a plan to reduce the number of septic systems in the area from 7,000 to 3,500 in the next 10 years, and to build a new $15-million wastewater treatment facility.
Jim Carlson, the Environmental Health director for the city and county, says the Mullan Road project needs to go ahead now in order to help the county reach its septic reduction goal, and to keep waste from contaminating the aquifer where drinking water comes from.
“The same geological structure we use to provide our drinking water is the same geological structure we use to dispose of our waste,” says Carlson. “I think it’s understandable to anybody that you can only do so much of that before you run into significant public health concerns.”
Many local residents who oppose the project recognize the need for a sewer system eventually but not while their septic systems are working adequately, says Rep. Holly Raser (D—Missoula), who represents the Mullan Road area in the Montana House of Representatives. Furthermore, they wonder why this area has been singled out while there are still 1,500 homes on septic systems within the city’s sewer district.
“Where is the larger contribution of waste to our aquifer? Is it the Mullan Road area, or could it be within the city sewer district?” Raser asks.
The public has until Monday to protest the extension of the city sewer system into the unincorporated residential area. The commissioners are expected to vote next Wednesday.