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Seeking a pollution solution
By Marilyn Boynton and David Grant Long
Jim Hook, owner of the Recapture Lodge in Bluff, Utah, brings forth an empty, dusty old wine bottle. It has a dilapidated cigar shoved down its neck, and around its middle is taped an official vote tally from a 1997 election. The tally reads: “Bluff Sewage Issue — Shall we have a central sewage plant? No’s — 82, Yes’s — 50.”
Hook explains, “This is the wine we drank on the night we won, and this is the cigar we smoked!”
Many residents of this tiny town feel the same way today about the possibility of a central sewage plant in Bluff, or even of any mandatory requirements for regular inspections.
A July 2005 engineering report strongly recommending that the town at least install two “cluster” septic systems and begin regular monitoring of existing septic systems has met considerable resistance. It was downplayed by the Bluff Area Service Board at a meeting of the San Juan County commissioners on Dec. 12.
And Bluff’s Wastewater Committee urged Utah water engineers Nolte Associates, Inc., of West Jordan to rewrite parts of the report not only to correct mistakes but to alter its general thrust. The report “highly recommended” not just septic-tank monitoring and pumping but two major installations requiring costly outlays for neighborhood piping and equipment.
According to Steve Simpson, a lawyer in Bluff who attended the commission meeting, Wastewater Committee members reported mainly a “maintenance” problem with septic systems in Bluff, while project engineer Rod Mills of Nolte had warned that improved maintenance of on-site septic systems cannot solve Bluff’s systems- failure problems.
“Many onsite systems already failed or are malfunctioning while many systems have potential to fail or malfunction in the future,” the report found. The report called the failure rate of 10 percent or more in two years among the 122 systems disturbingly high, which was part of the terminology that Wastewater Committee chair Theresa Breznau asked to be changed.
The Nolte report was commissioned by the Bluff Wastewater Committee, a loosely organized group of volunteers chaired by Breznau, the only member appointed (by the Bluff Service Area Board).
Bluff, which is not an incorporated town, is managed by the board rather than a formal town council. The wastewater committee has been meeting for at least two years, working for countless hours without pay to steer Bluff toward a resolution of its sewage problems.
But according to e-mails from Breznau obtained by the Free Press, she objected to the Nolte report from front to back and threatened not to pay the firm unless it made numerous changes.
One missive dated July 26, 2005, from Breznau to Rod Mills and Delmas Johnson of Nolte Associates begins, “No one on our committee is happy with this report.”
The e-mail later states: “(Y)ou have three options as far as we can tell. You can correct the data and then correct the conclusions so that they match the data. (Our preferred course of action.) Or you can just correct the erroneous data. Or you could refuse to do any further work on this. If you decide not to make corrections, I can’t guarantee that you will receive payment for #6 milestone. . . .”
Breznau made 57 objections to the engineers’ report, each of which was addressed in a later e-mail by Mills. Mills later corrected a typo that transposed key soils data and tried to accommodate Breznau on lesser points, but stood by his original recommendations. Despite Breznau’s threat, he was paid.
Breznau declined to comment on the matter.
The Nolte study was funded by a grant Bluff was awarded in 2003 by the National Onsite Demonstration Program, based in West Virginia. The program encourages the use of alternative, onsite and wastewater treatment technologies to ensure water quality and protect the environment in small rural communities.
The grant also funded a town inventory of homeowners. Forty-six percent of town residents allowed on-site inspections and volunteered septic histories. Numerous homeowners revealed that they had never pumped their septic tanks out.
Proponents of a central system say the 54 percent who declined to be inspected could be hiding even more system failures, and there are rumors of old, illegal, jerry-rigged septic systems that are still in use.
Remaining grant monies now are allocated to Souder Miller & Associates, engineers from Cortez, for a small study of lowland treatment options, even though Brent Adams, a Souder Miller engineer attending the Dec. 21 wastewater- commitee meeting, said that government regulations would prohibit any treatment in the available BLM lowlands along the San Juan River.
In the Nolte report, Mills recommended mandatory maintenance inspections and regular pumping “at the least.” He also recommended installing one cluster system west of Cottonwood Wash where lots are too small to meet Utah code.
In cases where lots are under one acre, it is acceptable to install underground equipment to upgrade septictank effluent before it goes to your leach field. Mills was recommending a simpler system that would pipe all effluent (for up to 100 homes) to a central location where assembled underground equipment could process everyone’s output together.
Mills recommended a second cluster system to serve the east side of town , where numerous clay “lenses” retard normal leaching. Homeowners would still be required to pump their individual tanks regularly and comply with scheduled inspections and permits as well.
Mills reported costs per home for individual on-site septics (with no clusters) at $19 per month. The cost per month for a central sewage plant, he said, would be about $26. That is because state and other funding would cover 80 to 90 percent of all construction and maintenance expenses. There would, however, be a sewer hook-up fee, which has yet to be determined.
The Nolte report as well as San Juan County Commissioner Lynn Stevens insist that any program requiring regular maintenance of septic systems must be mandatory, but some wastewatercommittee members say a voluntary system will work.
“The situation in Bluff as it relates to wastewater is very much in turmoil,” Stevens said. He said the commission and the Bluff Wastewater Committee must resolve their differences before the county will call for a general meeting with the state, in Bluff. Such a meeting is expected around March. Andrea Carpenter, whose husband, David, is a member of the Wastewater Committee, hopes for a constructive solution to the sewage dispute. She would like, for a start, to get credible figures on how many septics have actually failed.
Aside from the town inventory, Jim Hardin, head of operations for the town water system, claims to have reported every failure he has encountered to government authority. But that data has not been publicized. Breznau’s proposed maintenance program would gather hard data over a period of years, but would be reliable only if mandated.
A factor in the debate is that many believe a conventional central plant, would promote rapid growth, and many would like to see Bluff stay just as it is.
Because Bluff is not incorporated and cannot shape its own destiny, it has for years used septic tanks and the lack of a central system as its tool for planning and zoning, thus keeping businesses few and land undeveloped. And this is fine with many residents who came to Bluff to escape the rampant growth that has already arrived in other parts of the area, such as Moab.
Eugene Foushee, the builder and former owner of the Recapture Lodge motel, is outspokenly one of those. With only 122 hook-ups strung out along close to two miles of sewer main, he said, a central sewer system would be extremely expensive for the property owners.
“Some day when there’s more businesses and more people, it will reach critical mass and then there will be a sewer system,” he said, “but we’ve been through this several times since the mid-’70s.
He said the major property owners and local developers are behind the push for a centralized sysyem.
“They want to be able to advertise and say, ‘Oh, yeah, we got a sewer system, come on in’,” he said “But the town is not going to grow like that anyway — this is a remote spot and the way we see it should grow, is slowly. Only the people who really like what this town has to offer should come here — not to try make it into another sleepy little two-bit Western town that’s overpopulated and overuses its scenery.
“(Business interests) would love for it to be a Vail, a Moab, a Sedona or Telluride, any of these places where developers have made a bundle and the curio-stand folks have made a lot of business out of it.”
Foushee said he would support mandatory inspections every few years.
“Pumping could be a useful thing, and I could see that we might even own the (pumping) truck at some point and say we'll just pump them out automatically every three or five years.”
Concerning the septic-tank survey, Foushee said that homeowners were simply asked if they wanted to participate, and many of those whose systems are problem-free simply had no interest in the inspections. In other words, they didn't “refuse” to have them done, as critics have charged. He said the Nolte report told residents little that was new, and called it a “high-powered bunch of eye-wash.”
“Septic tanks work and it's a rarity that they don’t,” Foushee said.
But Commissioner Stevens told the Free Press that septic tanks in Bluff fail too often. “It is the unanimous opinion of the San Juan County commissioners that the sewage wastewater situation in Bluff is unsatisfactory and unhealthy,” he said.
“There has been contaminated groundwater on the surface from failed septic systems,” Steven said. “I think we ought to take a hard look at all of the different engineering evaluations that have been made. Certainly a central sewer system would be the most healthy.”
He said the question of financial feasibility is difficult to answer.
“There is a central sewer system in Aneth and Montezuma Creek, both of which are signifcantly smaller in population and in income than Bluff,” Stevens said. “I don’t know how you answer the question of whether it is financially feasible. Certainly state and federal money is available to install a central sewer system. It’s a question of whether the people are willing to accept that and to have a monthly recurring bill.”
The county has no direct authority in the matter, he said, because there is no county health department, just a regional branch of the state health department to handle such issues. The county has delegated its authority over Bluff to the Bluff Service District. Some town residents believe no one should tell them how to handle their septic systems, he said.
“Sometimes when it comes to wastewater it gets quite personal. Individual families say it is not a public matter how they manage their septic system on their own property, but we believe that if a septic system overflows and creates contamination on the ground then dogs, cats, birds, flies or whatever get in contact with that effluent and it creates a public problem.”
Another reason people resist the idea of a central sewer system is opposition to growth, Stevens noted.
“Some of the citizens of Bluff resist a central system because they think that would encourage increased population, and the people don’t seem to be very eager to have the town grow at all,” he said. “The commission’s position is it has nothing to do with the economy or growth. It has to do with public health.”