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HERON, MONTANA- Every day, 79-year old Heron rancher Art Jensen can be seen riding his ATV with his trusty border collie, Ringo, trailing along. Art’s hay fields stretch lush and green. His plump cows graze contentedly, many with frolicking calves at their sides. Neighbors (including this reporter) arrive for coffee and conversation, laden with home-made pastries for Art, a widower. The scene is strongly reminiscent of a Norman Rockwell painting.

   Then the Roto Rooter truck arrives, vomiting out its load of waste onto Art’s carefully tended hay fields. The scene is shattered, the neighbors are nervous, complaints are mounting, and inquiring minds want to know, “Is it legal?; Is it safe?”; and “Why is Idaho dumping its sewage in Montana?”

   Heron resident, Dr. Ira Groves, an emergency room physician, became aware of the steady stream of Roto Rotor trucks roaring down the Old River Road several weeks ago. His inquiries revealed that a Sandpoint Roto Rooter franchise, owned by Rod Leas, was dumping its “payload” on Art Jensen’s fields. According to Art, they dump up to three truckloads a day. Outraged and concerned about water quality and human health issues, Dr. Groves has been alerting Montana authorities including the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) and the DEQ (Dept. of Environmental Quality).

   Dr. Groves stated, “I’m concerned about the quality of many of the residents wells. I believe it’s possible sewage dumping may contaminate the water supply with ghiardia, tuberculosis, and other communicable diseases. How do you know what germs are harbored in a sewer system?”

   According to Pat Crowley, of the Helena-based Waste Management Division of the DEQ, there are 132 different vendors licensed to “land apply” sewage to Montana fields. Rod Leas’s brightly colored Roto Rooter trucks possesses one of the 132 licenses. A second septic-waste pumper, Sorlies Septic Service stationed in Trout Creek, possesses the other Sanders County license.

   According to agent Crowley, dumping of the septic waste, known as “septage” or “biosolids,” is highly regulated and conforms to Federal rules and regulations set by the EPA. Agent Crowley is Montana’s expert on the subject. He just wrote the Montana Septic Pumper Rules this year. Its guidelines and restrictions are identical to those used throughout the United States.

   Designated septage sites, such as Art Jensen’s, are a matter of public record.  Septage sites are subjected to restrictions regarding crop harvesting, grazing, and public access. Treatment of the septage is done to reduce the transfer of viruses, bacteria, and pathogens that can be transported to humans by rodents, insects, and other organisms. Roto Rooter pre-treats the septage with lime, prior to spraying it onto Art’s land, to bring the Ph level up to 12 or greater (which kills most pathogens).  A screen box collects litter and foreign objects in the septage to prevent it from being sprayed onto the field. Art tills the sprayed septage under the soil within 6 hours as a further health precaution.

   According to EPA documents, septage is high in nitrogen. When soils are loaded with more nitrogen than a cover crop (such as Art’s grass hay) can utilize, the excess leaches below the root zone in the form of nitrate. Nitrates can contaminate groundwater and drinking water wells. To prevent such contamination, septage is applied only at a rate that the cover crop can use and absorb. According to DEQ Agent Crowley, each registered site is inspected and records are kept about the volume and frequency of each site’s septage dumping.

   Public records document that 80% of the contents of the Roto Rotor trucks arriving at the Jensen ranch comes from the Sandpoint-based Litehouse salad dressing manufacturing plant. Art stated that the byproducts of the manufacturing process include canola oil, buttermilk, blue cheese, and cucumbers.  Multiple tomato plants are sprouting like weeds in Art’s hay fields, apparently from seeds transported in the septage.  Art is paid $50/load by Roto Rooter.

   Art, a rancher for over 60 years, stated, “The soil in Sanders County needs fertilizer, and the contents of the Roto Rooter trucks is one of the best kinds.” The main drawback, according to Art, is that the food by-products of the salad dressing manufacturing attract hungry ravens.

   Donna Platt, also of Heron, echoed Art Jensen’s comments concerning the ravens. The Platt ranch was previously a registered septage site. Ravens were seen by the neighbors circling over the Platt ranch septage dump sites, which averaged one dump per day. According to Donna, she received a call from the Sanders County Sanitarian’s office informing her that neighbors were registering complaints about the ravens and the septage dumping. Community concerns nudged the Platts to end their affiliation with Roto Rooter, which had been paying them $100/month for the use of their ranch.

   Gary Gaffney, a water quality engineer for the state of Idaho, verified that Idaho’s domestic septage land application program is nearly identical to that of other states, including Montana, as it follows federal guidelines.  Primary differences between states would be the designated monitoring agency, rather than the land application guidelines.

   Will McDowell, of the Missoula-based Tri-State Water Quality Council, endorses the guidelines of the septage land application program. Will said, “People living on earth create waste, including septic waste. You have to think about managing it correctly to prevent contamination of ground water.”

   According to McDowell, rural areas use septic systems with leach fields that receive the liquid portion of domestic sewage.  The Missoula area, which is more heavily populated, has a sewage treatment plant that separates the solids from the liquid. The liquid is treated and then funneled into the river. The solids are sent to a private compost company, named EKO-compost. It is processed, and then resold as concentrated organic matter for use in flowerbeds, gardens, and lawns. Therefore, both septic tanks and city sewage treatment plants return sewage back to the land to enhance agricultural projects.

   McDowell commented that people have been using a form of sewage land application, associated with farming, for thousands of years. If managed properly, the crops will absorb the nutrients and prevent water contamination.

   For additional information about the disposal of septage, citizens may call DEQ Agent Pat Crowley at 406-444-5294. He may also be reached by email at [email protected]

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Nancy Lynn Masten

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