The smell of success 

“We have come a long way” was the tagline at Tuesday’s open house and tour of the Missoula Wastewater Treatment Plant behind the Super Wal-Mart on Clark Fork Drive. The event celebrated the completion of the plant’s two-year, $18 million expansion and upgrade that includes an increase in the plant’s capacity from 8.5 to 12 million gallons of wastewater per day, as well as the implementation of a biological nutrient removal system (BNR) that has significantly reduced levels of ammonia, nitrogen and phosphorus in water pumped from the plant into the Clark Fork River. An ultraviolet light disinfection system has also replaced chlorine treatment to remove other harmful bacteria.

Standing above sewer lines that run for about 230 miles beneath Missoula, according to Wastewater Superintendent Starr Sullivan, you can’t help but think that it’s not just the treatment plant that has come a long way.

You can’t help but notice what a windy day it is, either.

About 40 people gathered (and never once held their noses) to hear Sullivan, Mayor Mike Kadas, Ellen Leahy of the Missoula City-County Health Department and Director of Public Works Bruce Bender, among others, provide praise and context for the project:

In 1907, said Leahy, it was considered “progress” when the city of Missoula approved the dumping of raw sewage into the Clark Fork River rather than letting cesspools collect in people’s backyards.

On a screen, Bender flashed old cartoons of character Jerry Germ, circa 1961, touting the pressing need to clean up the Clark Fork; in the mid-’60s, the original treatment plant was built. Bender showed slides with details about the recent upgrade, too:

More than 160,000 hours of onsite labor went into moving more than 55,000 cubic yards of dirt and materials, placing 8,300 cubic yards of concrete and installing 3.5 miles of pipe—all to complete the expansion and BNR which, in 2003, successfully removed about 95 percent of pollutants from the wastewater.

As for the scent wafting through the crowd from the headworks (aka “the big stinker,” according to Sullivan), where the sewage first comes in to the plant, Gail Miller, long-time plant lab technician, says, “After 26 years, you don’t notice it anymore.”

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