Missoula. . .Poor pipe maintenance caused hundreds of thousands of gallons of partially-treated sewage to spew into the Clark Fork River last Thursday, according to employees at the Missoula Wastewater Treatment Plant. While plant officials blamed the burst on a backhoe shovel, some employees contend that the 30-year-old pipe was an accident waiting to happen, having been slowly rotting for a number of years.

According to Kevin Keenan, Director of Montana Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (Montana PEER), the pipe had already been leaking partially-treated sewage for days, which is why a work crew was on the site in the first place. The backhoe was able to cause so much damage because the pipe was terribly corroded and on the verge of crumbling.

The event underscores a number of charges Montana PEER brought to the public’s attention last October with the release of it’s white paper, Fouling Our Nest: Gross Negligence at the Missoula Wastewater Treatment Plant. The white paper, written anonymously by treatment plant employees, charged the Missoula Plant’s negligence has continually polluted the Clark Fork, contaminated the region’s groundwater and threatened the safety of the plant’s own drinking water supply.

At the time, Missoula Mayor Mike Kadas vowed to answer the concerns addressed by the white paper by establishing an investigative team made up of three local officials. To date, the investigation has borne no fruit, although one plant employee thought to be responsible for portions of the white paper has been suspended by angry managers.

Keenan further expressed his dismay at comments made by Missoula Health Department Director Jim Carlson in the wake of last week’s spill. Carlson told the Missoulian that the river was better able to handle thousands of pounds of sewage during the winter months. That claim is “classic spin-doctoring,” claims Keenan, a former water quality specialist with the Montana Department of Environmental Quality. “The river is clearly impacted by sewage spills no matter the season. It is highly discouraging that the city’s top health official is glossing over the serious implications of this event,” Keenan stated.

Keenan also railed against city officials’ description of the leak, who referred to the sewage as “gray water” or “food,” when in fact the leak is undisinfected human sewage. “The city has worked harder in the past few days to spin the coverage of this accident than it has in the past few months to mitigate the health and environmental problems in Missoula,” Keenan commented.

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