Raising a stink

County will not financially support private enterprise to solve septic issue, says commission


November 16, 2023

The county is not willing to financially prop up a private enterprise no matter the service it offers was the crux of a heated conversation last week about the ongoing issue of draining septic tanks.

For the last couple of months, business owner Jim Geis has reported on his progress in attempting to solve the issue of state regulations no longer allowing him to only land-apply sewage on the land on which it was generated.

The regulations were changed in 2018, but Geis was only informed that he was breaking the law in September. Since then, he said he has had little success in finding a solution and wants the county to assist by building a lagoon in which he can dump the waste.

He argued that it’s a county problem, not just his own to solve. The population in 2021 was 7316, of whom 2838 live in the municipalities, he told the commission, while the remaining citizens live in the county and are on septic systems.

“What happened on September 15 when I was officially notified that for five years, I’d actually been illegally land-applying, you essentially shut those people out of dealing with septic tanks – at least by me,” he said.

He spoke of the costs and lengthy process involved in applying for a permit from the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and his concerns about the option of hauling the waste to Gillette, considering the expense, time and wear and tear on his truck. Geis said he had looked at burying tanks and emptying them in the summer months, but this too will be “an added expense.”

County Attorney Joe Baron interjected to ask why the commission was receiving reports from a private business.

“This is a law. You violated the law, it’s real simple,” he said, referring to the fact that Geis was unaware of the regulation changes and continued land-applying for several years after they went into effect.

“…These are state DEQ rules that [Geis] has to follow just like anybody else. I’m sitting here listening to this and I don’t know what the point is here.”

Baron asked why the county is involved in this.

“It is what it is,” Commissioner Fred Devish told Geis, explaining that the county is not responsible for these rules being implemented and cannot make exceptions to them.

The state would have enforced the new rules whether the county adopted them or not, Devish said. As with any private business, he said, prices change with costs and it’s up to Geis how he handles this change.

“If you’re not going to be able to do their septics, then they are going to have to have somebody from South Dakota or Gillette or whatever and they are going to charge that much more,” he said.

“…If you want to survive, you’re going to pass that expense on to your customers and I don’t know anybody who’d say ‘I’ll just wait a while until my septic tank is full’.”

Geis continued to argue that it’s a county problem, considering the number of people who are affected.

“You’ve got 4400 people out in the county and I don’t believe it’s up to me to have to come up with a solution for them to pump their septics,” Geis said.

When Devish asked if Geis feels it’s the responsibility of the commission, he responded that the commissioners are elected to take care of the county.

Speaking to the enormity of the project Geis was suggesting, Commissioner Kelly Dennis commented that he might be open to the idea of the county building a lagoon if Geis had a plan of how it could be done – including the cost of building and maintaining it.

“We haven’t got the ability to afford it, plus, if we build one, we’re going to have to have an operator…we could be talking a couple of hundred thousand a year in maintenance and more and that’s without re-lining and cleaning it out,” Dennis said.

An audience member spoke in support of Geis, saying that the issue affects everyone in the county and asking how a person is supposed to drain their septic tank if Geis can no longer do it. Baron responded that Geis is not the only person able to provide the service to this area.

“They’ll call somebody [else] up and they’ll come and deal with it, just like was done before,” he said.

The audience member complained that the county is throwing its citizens to the wolves and that town residents get to make use of a system that was already there without having had to pay for it to be installed.

“That’s the risk that you take to enjoy the life of country living,” Baron responded. “…Life is not without risk, and if you choose to live out in the county and you choose to have a septic system, all kinds of things can go wrong with that.”

As the audience member continued to argue that the county should solve the problem, Commissioner Bob Latham heatedly explained that the board does not have the authority to allow Geis to continue land-applying in a manner that does not fit the regulations.

“What are we supposed to do? We cannot break the law,” Latham said.

“The law by the [Environmental Protection Agency] and the DEQ says we have to follow their [rules]. Either we follow them, or they’re going to come in and they’re going to follow them, so what do you want us to do?”

Latham again questioned why the county was being asked to raise a mill levy and build a lagoon for the benefit of a private business. Baron reiterated that Geis does have options already available – he could haul the waste to Gillette, for example, but he does not want to pay for it.

During the conversation, Geis also questioned why it took so long for him to be notified he was breaking the regulations, questioning the lack of oversight from the county.

Baron, however, argued that ignorance of the law is not a defense and the matter was tackled as soon as it was reported.

“If a cop doesn’t see a crime, how is he supposed to know whether or not you’re doing it?” he said.

“The matter was reported, it got investigated, then action was taken. That’s as simple as it gets.”

Geis ended the conversation by stating that he hopes the person who turned him in has a miserable life because he’s made life miserable for 4400 people.


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