Flushed into court 

Stopping up the septic vs. sewer debate

The long, fiery fight over extending public sewer to parts of the Rattlesnake Valley entered yet another round Oct. 12, when the anti-sewer Rattlesnake Coalition announced its appeal of a ruling that dismissed claims that Missoula and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) didn’t follow proper environmental reviews.

Both sides—the 75-party Rattlesnake Coalition and its president Will Snodgrass on the one hand and the city, EPA, state Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and groups like the Clark Fork Coalition on the other—claim the banner “environmentally sound.” And both sides accuse the other of shortsighted, out-of sight, out-of-mind thinking. The science seems to favor the city, though Snodgrass claims that public agencies haven’t given due consideration to sewer alternatives or to potential problems created by Missoula’s wastewater treatment system.

The project to hook nearly 500 Rattlesnake homes—the last large unsewered neighborhood within city limits—into the sewer network was first approved in 2003. After Loreen Folsom, Snodgrass’ partner, successfully sued the city saying it hadn’t allowed enough citizen participation, the process was repeated and the project again approved in 2004. It’s been on hold since then due to the Coalition’s suit, though two sections of the original project—Gilbert Avenue and the Lincolnwood subdivision—are now underway after those neighborhoods petitioned the city to go ahead with the plan.

The Rattlesnake Coalition’s suit argues the project warrants an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) because the EPA granted $5 million for expansion of the wastewater treatment plant, and because it’s slated to contribute federal money for the Rattlesnake sewer project. U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy dismissed their claims in early October, finding that the plant upgrade was a moot point since it was already completed, and that the second federal grant couldn’t be disputed because it hasn’t yet been given to the city. The Coalition’s appeal persists in maintaining that the Environmental Assessment already performed doesn’t satisfy requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act.

Snodgrass wants an EIS to be conducted to examine water quality issues, correlating impacts like growth and sewer alternatives. Ultimately, Snodgrass seems to hope that an EIS would somehow substantiate his opinion of the sewer project, which he sums up by saying: “Missoula wants to dig up our streets, damage existing infrastructure in the process, bury toxic PVC pipes in trenches, transport untreated waste across hundreds of miles in buried pipes—many of which are broken and leaking—and then dump the sewage into the river.”

But ask the city or groups like the Clark Fork Coalition, and they say it’s the existing septic tanks—not the sewer line—that pose a problem. Though about 1,200 of 1,700 homes in the Rattlesnake are already connected to sewer, the remaining houses are serviced by densely packed septic tanks that don’t meet modern DEQ requirements.

“The septic systems in the Rattlesnake are designed to discharge 100 percent of their waste,” says Steve King, acting director of Public Works. “To me, it’s hypocritical for a septic user to criticize a system that’s designed to collect waste. We’re trying to collect it all and treat it. They’re dumping it into the ground by design.”

When Missoula joined the Clark Fork River Voluntary Nutrient Reduction Program in the late ’90s, it committed to connecting half of the nearly 7,000 existing septic systems up to sewer so that wastewater would be carried to the treatment plant. There, about 60 percent of the nitrogen and phosphorus, which promote harmful algae growth in streams and rivers, are removed along with other contaminants.

Chris Brick, staff scientist for the Clark Fork Coalition, says her review of the county Water Quality District’s data in the Rattlesnake revealed higher levels of nitrogen than most of the sewered areas of town, demonstrating the impact of septic systems. Snodgrass points out that at least two areas with sewers were found to have elevated nitrogen levels as well; Brick counters by saying it’s the exception, not the rule in sewered areas.

The sewer has issues of its own, Snodgrass says, and he’s not convinced that what’s discharged from the plant into the river is safer than what’s coming from the septic systems. He also worries that the sewer network is constructed of PVC pipes that are cracked and leaking. Citing the city’s data that about two million gallons of water per day leak into the sewer pipes, he reasons that effluent must be escaping as well.

King says cracks exist in any system, but that two fulltime crews are dedicated to checking and maintaining sewer pipe. He also says that careful monitoring shows “a balance between what’s carried and what gets there. There’s no measurable exfiltration from the collection system.”

“For years [Snodgrass] has been screaming about exfiltration with no evidence,” King says. “We’ve explored it, and yet he persists.”

The one point on which the Rattlesnake Coalition, Clifford and King can agree is that Rattlesnake residents are scared about development associated with the sewer. In fact, growth is one of the impacts that Snodgrass wishes could be explored through an EIS. He says sewer encourages growth, and subsequent effects on air quality and wildlife can’t be disregarded. King says that while sewer can induce growth, the Rattlesnake is already densely developed. The sewer is catching up with, not spurring, development.

Growth issues certainly need to be discussed, Clifford says, though not necessarily in the context of the sewer.

“There’s no question what’s good for the river, and we shouldn’t use these talks to get at the growth issue,” he says.

Sufficient evidence in support of sewer came out in the Environmental Assessment, Clifford says, and any more would be redundant. Not to mention the fact that the cost of the project goes up each month because of mounting construction costs.

“As an environmentalist, I get accused a lot of making the government push paper around for no reason,” he says. “Where we think the government has done a good job of looking at impacts and alternatives, we don’t want more meaningless work done.”

Snodgrass and the Rattlesnake Coalition, obviously, disagree. And though legal questions can—and will—be decided in the courtroom, the broader social questions of urbanization and public health—and more specific issues like how to protect the Clark Fork River and Missoula’s aquifer from contamination—are not as easily resolved.


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