Laura Lundquist

(Missoula Current) A Swan Valley group is questioning Forest Service claims after the agency announced finding no groundwater contamination at Holland Lake.

On Monday, Save Holland Lake, a Condon-area nonprofit, reacted with skepticism to Forest Service reports of finding no groundwater contamination from the sewage lagoons that serve the Holland Lake Lodge and campground. They say a delay in testing produced results that probably didn’t reflect the contamination that occurred several weeks ago.

“We were given a number of excuses why this was delayed and didn’t happen,” Roberts said in a release.

On Friday, the Flathead National Forest put out a press release saying it had sampled water extracted from the north shore of Holland Lake near the Lodge and from three monitoring wells and “the results indicated no groundwater contamination.”

In the Flathead Forest release, DEQ Water Quality Division Administrator Lindsey Krywaruchka is quoted as saying, "DEQ appreciates the Forest Service's coordination and response through the process and we are pleased the samples showed no contamination of ground or surface water.”

But Save Holland Lake is not pleased, because the Flathead National Forest told their people something slightly different during a meeting on Wednesday.

David Roberts, an engineer and Save Holland Lake spokesman, said that on Wednesday, he was told the Flathead Forest had just received the results of the samples they’d collected the week before. He was told the sampling summary indicated that elevated levels of nitrogen had been found in all three wells although they didn’t exceed limits set by the federal Clean Water Act. Human waste can be a  significant source of nitrogen that can pollute water and contribute to algae blooms.

“That is different from the press release stating that ‘the results indicated no groundwater contamination,’” Roberts said Monday in a release.

Because of the differing claims, Save Holland Lake is requesting that the Forest Service publicly release the actual test report and results. They also want to see results of nitrogen samples from the ponds, monitoring records showing the pond leakage is stabilized, and a Flathead Forest explanation of what happened to 200,000 gallons leaked this year.

Save Holland Lake said that is what former FNF Acting Supervisor and current Deputy Forest Supervisor Tami MacKenzie promised them in the fall. New supervisor Anthony Botello takes over at the beginning of the year.

(Photo provided by Save Holland Lake)
(Photo provided by Save Holland Lake)
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Over the past year, the Flathead National Forest has given the public reason to view such claims related to Holland Lake Lodge with distrust. Among the questions of permit ownership and expansion plans, a series of mishaps and delays has raised concern about use and management of the two sewage lagoons positioned uphill from the lodge and campground.

Save Holland Lake had filed a complaint in early May asking DEQ to investigate, concerned that the lagoons were inadequate to meet a proposed expansion of the lodge facilities. In mid-August, DEQ issued a report of a June 8 site visit that concluded that the treatment pond was probably leaking significantly into the groundwater and possibly Holland Lake.

DEQ requested that the Forest Service conduct a leak assessment by Sept. 17 but extended the deadline until Nov. 15 at the request of the Forest Service.

However, in late September, Save Holland Lake released Forest Service photos and correspondence from Freedom of Information Act requests that showed big tears in the treatment pond liner that were discovered in June 2022. Subsequent correspondence showed the Forest Service hired people to tape the liner together without mentioning the problem to anyone else.

USFS engineer Patrick Siers told Krywaruchka and Rachel Clark of DEQ’s Water Quality Division that the Forest Service hadn’t done the required leakage tests after the repair, according to FOIA documents. He also provided records that showed 200,000 gallons had flowed into the pond since November 2021 but hadn’t exited through the sprinklers that apply treated waste to the land.

DEQ ordered the Forest Service to describe what happened to those 200,000 gallons by Oct. 24.

Subsequently, on Oct. 11, the Forest Service told DEQ that engineers preparing to do the leakage test found the pond had leaked 14 inches in five days, far more than the 6 inches per year DEQ allows. DEQ staff inspected the ponds two days later and calculated that about 50,000 gallons had leaked from the pond between Oct. 6 and Oct. 13, resulting in a violation of the Clean Water Act.

The Flathead Forest was supposed to test the groundwater soon after that but notified Save Holland Lake and DEQ that well drilling would be delayed past Oct. 31 due to issues with contracting and finding an available well driller. But then, there was no explanation as to why actual testing was delayed until the week of Dec. 4.

As a result, testing was delayed seven weeks after the 50,000 gallon leak occurred. During this time, Roberts said, no additional contamination occurred while a large amount of dilution likely did. This could explain the low nitrogen levels.

As a result, Save Holland Lake wants the Flathead Forest to provide access to the monitoring wells so an independent third party can assess the groundwater.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.

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