Laura Lundquist

(Missoula Current) More Forest Service documents show that the sewage lagoon for the Holland Lake Lodge suffered a failure last summer that the Forest Service may not have reported.

On Monday, the nonprofit Save Holland Lake sent a letter to the Montana Department of Environmental Quality and Missoula County reporting evidence from last year of a leak in the aeration pond of the Holland Lake Lodge sewage treatment lagoons. Save Holland Lake recently acquired the evidence through a Freedom of Information Act request made to the Flathead National Forest.

Along with their letter to DEQ, the group sent several photos from June 2022 showing a 15-foot-long rip in the plastic aeration pond liner, which created a large hole due to a few other tears emanating from the midpoint of the long tear. One photo shows the dirt is damp below where the plastic is lifted.

“This new information indicates that the wastewater treatment system poses a grave and continuing threat to public safety and to nearby ground and surface waters, including Holland Lake itself and the endangered bull trout that live there. This threat must be addressed immediately before more damage occurs,” wrote David Roberts of Save Holland Lake in the letter.

Save Holland Lake was formed in response to concerns that POWDR, a Utah-based adventure resort corporation, was pushing to expand the Holland Lake Lodge into a facility that would cater to three times the number of visitors, not only in the summer but year-round. The higher numbers of tourists would put a greater burden on everything in the Swan Valley from roads to emergency services.

One of the services Save Holland Lake has focused on is the sewage lagoons that serve both the Holland Lake Lodge and the nearby Holland Lake campground. The lodge draws its water from a shallow well, which is used to pump sewage uphill to the sewage lagoons above the campground. It enters the aeration pond and eventually overflows into the holding pond, from which wastewater is spray-irrigated into the woods beyond.

Obviously, the aeration pond is the nastier of the two ponds, and that’s where Seeley Lake wastewater plant operator Vince Chappell found the tear on June 1, 2022. Chappell immediately emailed Forest Service civil engineer Patrick Siers and Services Contracting agent Charles Stuart.

“I found a major issue. The liner by the overflow pipe has come apart. It will need to be patched immediately,” Chappell wrote.

The Forest Service hired Chappell and Wayne Schlegel of Les Schlegel Enterprises in July to patch the tears and re-bury the liner beneath about a foot of dirt.

On Sept. 26, 2022, Siers emailed four Forest Service employees, including Flathead National Forest recreation program manager Beth Pargman, reporting that the liner was repaired for about $4,000. He added that they had lowered the level of the lagoon by transferring “effluent back & forth between the two ponds to better expose the damage.”

The hole may have been repaired - tape of thicker plastic was used to cover the tears - but Save Holland Lake doubts it was the only hole.

“I consulted with a wastewater professional who said that liner looks shot. It’s brittle, and it’s probably failed in other places. It looks like it was cut in five directions,” Roberts told the Current.

Roberts said he thinks DEQ regulations require lagoon owners to report such failures to DEQ. In a Sept. 21 email, Margarite Juarez Thomas said she wasn’t sure that any leakage overly contaminated the groundwater, so it didn’t need to be reported. But Roberts said Juarez Thomas hadn’t seen the photos of the tear when she sent that response.

“I think the Forest Service kept this from DEQ or DEQ would have noted it in their assessment report,” Roberts said. “Of all the times we’ve said, ‘Hey, we think it’s leaking,’ and asked about it leaking, they’ve never said, ‘Oh yeah, we’ve had one incident.’ We sat down with them in January and said we’re not trying to use this as a bludgeon - it’s important that it gets fixed. And now, we know that they knew about this and didn’t say anything.”

There have been a number of red flags over the past two decades indicating the sewage ponds are leaking. Most recently, DEQ issued an assessment on Aug. 21 that found the lagoon was probably leaking significantly, so human waste is likely ending up in Holland Lake.

As a result, DEQ ordered the U.S. Forest Service on Aug. 21 to conduct a water-balance test of the lagoon. The test compares the amount of effluent flowing into the lagoons with the amount of water leaving through either irrigation or evaporation. If the water leaving is noticeably less than the amount coming in, the difference shows how much is likely leaking out of the ponds.

For example, Forest Service emails show that water was discharged from the lagoons only once between 2018 and 2022. Yet Chappell “noted a recent noticeable increase in use.” With increased amounts of effluent going in but only one discharge going out in four years, the water had to be going somewhere.

The DEQ’s deadline for completing the water balance test was Sept. 17. But the Forest Service asked for and was granted a two-month extension.

Roberts cried “foul.”

“The reason the Forest Service asked for an extension is they’re saying they can’t shut down the flows from the lodge and campground and isolate (the aeration pond). But that’s exactly what they had to do to make these repairs. They had isolated new flow coming in right in the middle of high season last year. They had this whole area taped off last summer,” Roberts said.

Now, with the recent rains and winter coming on, it’s too late to do the test. Rainwater flowing into the shallow ponds adds water to the inflow side of the calculation, throwing off the results. Either the test has to be postponed until next July or, as Save Holland Lake suggests, everything could be shut down until the Forest Service or Holland Lake Lodge installs gauges to monitor the lagoons’ inflow and outflow.

“WGM documented this thing leaking in the late-90s, and now it’s leaking again. You can’t tell me if you do it again, it’s not going to leak. Why let them do that, especially here right next to the lake, and especially if they want to bring in more people? The groundwater is only 7, 8, 9 feet down right there, and there’s probably a plume of contamination right there,” Roberts said. “Either DEQ or the county health department should be able to shut this down and not let them keep pumping into it until they figure out what’s up."

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