County Sanitarian Megan Bullock presents at the special meeting May 18 of the County Health Board.

The Jefferson County Health Board held two back-to-back meetings on May 18 at the Clancy Elementary School. One turned out to be a mostly pro-forma exercise; the second was more contentious — leading to the resignation of Clancy Water and Sewer District (CWSD) Board President David Leitheiser.

As expected, the Health Board voted to lift the attendance cap on events for the county, clearing the way for summer activities such as the Jefferson County Rodeo Association’s Independence Day weekend competition and the Headwaters Country Jam and Rockin’ the Rivers music festivals outside Three Forks.

Event attendance had been capped at 50 since last October, when the COVID-19 pandemic was near its peak in Montana.

That matter settled, the Health Board opened a public hearing regarding the creation of a special management area and septic maintenance program for Clancy.

The Special Management Area and Septic Maintenance Program, said County Sanitarian Megan Bullock, is an attempt to tackle Clancy’s ongoing nitrate problems by increasing the oversight of septic systems. The failing and aging septic systems in Clancy have been cited by a 2018 Preliminary Engineering report as being the source of the nitrates. The Special Management Area, if added to existing Jefferson County Onsite Wastewater Treatment Regulations, would require approval from the county’s Environmental Health Department for new or increased septic usage and replacement systems

The Septic Maintenance Program, as described by Bullock at the meeting, ”requires [residents] not to exceed four years on pumping a septic tank.” The Septic Maintenance Program also requires owners to repair any “deficiencies;” possibly obtain permits for replacing, repairing, or altering an existing septic system; as well as provide documentation to the Environmental Health Department regarding inspections.

“I do want to point out that this doesn’t have anything to do with the Clancy Water and Sewer District,” Bullock said. Although the proposed management area covers the same geography as the existing water and sewer district, “this is the county and the Health Board through our wastewater regulations,” Bullock stated. 

The CWSD has been attempting to tackle the same nitrate issue through ongoing discussions of a public water system.

In an email prior to the meeting,  Leitheiser wrote, “This proposal by the County Sanitarian and Health Board is a serious over-reach of their authority District-wide without accountability, it is rationalized by a ‘solution looking for a problem.’”

Sunday evening, Leitheiser sent an email tendering his resignation from the CWSD Board of directors, of which he had been part since its inception in 2015. “Regrettably I have found it frustrating and futile to continue due to persistent interference by County officials and others who behind the scenes are attempting to force their separate agenda on Clancy,” Leitheiser wrote. This separate agenda, he clarified, was “to impose the expensive one-size-fits-all public water system on Clancy regardless of the negative impacts”

With Leitheiser’s resignation, there is no longer a CWSD board, as former members Jen Davis, Jason Gilliland, and Bob Marks did not seek election for the positions to which they were appointed earlier in the year. County commissioner Cory Kirsch wrote, “The commission will now be charged with appointing new members to the board.” The CWSD meeting scheduled for May 25, he said, would be used to get an “overview of our options and an opportunity for folks to apply for the vacant board positions.”

A public water system has long been debated in Clancy as a possible solution to the ongoing nitrate issues. Leitheiser has opposed that approach due to the cost to residents, which he estimates to be $111 per month, plus the cost of water.

Leitheiser’s disagreement with the Special Management Area and Septic Maintenance Program came, in part, from the use of the existing CWSD boundary. “Yes, there is a groundwater nitrate problem in some areas of Clancy. But definitely not over the entire District area; the nitrate groundwater issues are mainly along the Clancy Creek Road corridor,” he wrote in his email prior to the meeting

Leitheiser was not the only one concerned about the district boundaries. Clancy resident Steve Marks asked at the meeting, “Why is it just a special management area for just this area? It’s a countywide deal — taking care of septic systems.”

“It isn’t countywide that we have these kinds of nitrates in drinking,” Bullock responded. She said she recently collected a sample from a home with an infant that had elevated nitrates. She called the levels in Clancy “alarming” as elevated nitrates can cause blue baby syndrome which can be fatal.

Another concern among some Clancy residents is the possible requirement of a level two septic system for new systems or if existing systems are failing. A level two septic system is a septic tank with an additional secondary treatment to reduce the effluent released into the ground. Bullock quoted the cost of a level two system at between $12,000 and $20,000. 

In his email preceding the meeting, Leitheiser stated, “this proposal gives the County Sanitarian all the authority to require an advanced septic treatment systems without accountability or requiring justification, and without recourse by the homeowner to object.

The Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation does cover some of the expense according to Bullock, — 25% of the cost up to a five thousand dollar cap.

But “that is what stinks about this whole deal,” Bullock conceded. “Those people [with failing systems] may have to figure out how to pay for a new system...it would be nice if the county could somehow do a revolving type of low-interest loan. I’m working on that too.”

The county’s proposal is open for comment for thirty days, and the vote by the Health Board will take place on June 22. Those who wish to comment can do so by emailing Bullock at mbullock@jeffersoncounty-mt.gov or mailing a letter to the board at P.O. Box H in Boulder.

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