Sewage Sludge Applications in SW Montana, Summer 2015

The state of Montana has three applications pending to spread sewage sludge on farmlands in SW Montana this summer 2015.

Each of these proposed Environmental Assessments alleges that spreading septage will “benefit” the land by enriching soils with nutrients. The proposed sites are used for wheat, alfalfa, and grasslands for livestock production.

Well, the state is right in that septage does contain nutrients; the problem is that it also contains many other compounds and chemicals that are NOT needed for crop growth and which can bioaccumulate, travel in our surface and groundwater and can contaminate drinking water supplies, and exposure can threaten human health, not to mention degrade local environmental quality.

Sludge is typically applied by a tanker using a spreader bar.

So what is Septage?     Sewage sludge, or as the state of Montana calls it “septage,” is anything that is flushed, poured, or dumped into our wastewater  – a vast, nasty stew of wastes collected from countless sources — from homes to businesses to industry.  Selling sewage sludge to farmers for use on cropland (or in Montana, leasing private land for septage application) is a favored government program for disposing of the unwanted byproducts from municipal wastewater treatment plants and local privy operators.

Sewage sludge is anything but the benign fertilizer the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and our state governments says it is. 

The sludge being spread on our crop fields can be a dangerous mix of heavy metals, industrial compounds, viruses, bacteria, drug residues and sometimes even radioactive material.  There are hundreds of documented cases of people have fallen ill after being exposed to sewage sludge fertilizer, suffering from respiratory distress, headaches, nausea, rashes, reproductive complications, cysts and tumors.

This isn’t hearsay: sound science has proven the link between sewage sludge application and harm to human and ecological health.  Click here to learn more about sewage sludge and Upper Missouri Waterkeeper’s work on this issue.

What Can You Do?    Because the state of Montana has legally accepted the practice of sewage sludge application, there isn’t an easy solution. Analyzing and trying to shoot down every application the state receives is akin to playing wack-a-mole at the county fair.

That said, Upper Missouri Waterkeeper does review every sludge application in the Upper Missouri River Basin and provides technical comments to the state.  Our comments and advocacy are aimed at ensuring that – short of a lasting solution to the bigger problem of sludge application on farmlands being legal – any final permit keeps sludge application in high, arid  benchlands, away from any waterways, wetlands, or communities.

You can also send the Montana Dept. of Environmental Quality a letter expressing any concerns – contact us if you’d like help writing a comment letter!

We believe a real, lasting solution to sewage sludge application on Montana’s farmlands will come from addressing two interrelated issues:

  • Helping small communities – who do not have centralized wastewater treatment facilities, and are therefore reliant on using cesspool operators – find funds to upgrade their wastewater disposal options.
  • Get rid of the alleged “beneficial use” designation for sewage sludge under Montana law.  Our Constitution guarantees citizens the right to a clean and healthful environment; there is a strong argument to made that authorizing sewage sludge application on farmlands is contrary to the state’s duty to protect our environment.

While federal clean water law forces medium and large communities to possess meaningful, up-to-date wastewater treatment facilities, there are several exemptions for small communities due to the up-front cost of new treatment technology and the limited environmental ‘significance’ of wastewater from small communities.

This trend – and let’s be honest and say political stance – of never requiring smaller communities and businesses to create plans that address waste disposal has inadvertently created the need for sewage sludge disposal. Put another way, by not requiring small communities to plan for the future, the state of Montana has externalized the wastewater pollution of small communities and placed it on the local environment.

In closing, we remind folks that a solution ultimately lies in finding cost-effective means to upgrade wastewater treatment options for local communities. Doing so helps local business by local government internalizing the costs of waste disposal and proportionally allocating those costs on stakeholders (e.g., pay to pollute), as well as protects human health and the environment.

Care about helping us change sewage sludge policy in Montana?    Join us as a member!

Being a member provides critical support to Upper Missouri Waterkeeper’s work:

  • Your membership donation, even just $35, really helps us keep our small non-profit afloat!
  • Membership allows us to advocate for strong river protections on your behalf before local and state decisionmakers.
  • Membership gives us the legal standing to protect your lawful right to clean water and a healthy environment in the court system.

Quite simply our environmental protection laws are routinely ignored, not enforced, or need serious updates!  There is a real need for a strong voice holding decisionmakers and government accountable to Remember our Rivers in every decision they make. Click here to become a member today!