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Sewage leak closes lodges

By WHITNEY ROYSTER
Star-Tribune environmental reporter with wire reports

Two lodges in the Big Horn Mountains have been shut down by the U.S. Forest Service after investigators found raw sewage had leaked from the two operations, officials said.

The owner of the Meadowlark and Deer Haven resorts has been cited for violating health, safety, environmental and sanitation conditions of his Forest Service permit.

Water and sewage systems at both lodges were shut down over the weekend, Bighorn National Forest Supervisor Bill Bass said Wednesday. Both lodges are located on forest land and within the Ten Sleep Creek drainage.

"Specifically, sewage has escaped the resorts' owned and authorized sewage systems," a Forest Service release said. The extent of contamination to neighboring creeks is under investigation, according to the agency.

According to Brian Lovett, inspection and compliance officer for the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality, inspectors visited the area last Thursday, based on a complaint that raw sewage was reaching Ten Sleep Creek.

Lovett said the problem seemed to be the wastewater system, where sewage from the resorts is held in a tank or underground vault, then pumped up to a treatment system. Frozen lines caused problems with the uphill pumping, causing sewage to accumulate.

Lovett said that sewage formed a "pool" from the overflowing vault, and that pool may have reached the creek.

Jim Eisenhauer, a discharge specialist with the DEQ, said there was "kind of a flow path" from the pool to Ten Sleep Creek, but he and his staff "did not observe at the time that there was an overflow" when they visited the area last week.

Ten Sleep Creek, on the western slopes of the Big Horn Mountains, flows into Meadowlark Lake, another pristine area for anglers.

Steve Yekel, regional fisheries supervisor in Cody, said the dilution of creek and lake water with any sewage should prevent any harm to fish, but said anglers and other visitors may become sickened if they come into contact with sewage.

"The only concern that I would have in regard to this sewage is if there's an accumulation along the shoreline -- someone could get sick that way," he said. "There would be more of an impact of an angler getting sick than it causing a fish kill."

The sewage problem was reported to the DEQ by an employee of the Big Horn Mountain Resorts, according to the Northern Wyoming Daily News in Worland. That employee, Mike Decker, videotaped sewage being improperly discharged into the creek and notified Forest Service officials, according to the paper.

"I love this mountain, and people are just letting it rot away," Decker told the newspaper.

The lodges are owned by Jim McCotter, who was served with the citation on Monday, Bass said. A telephone message left for McCotter on Wednesday at the Meadowlark lodge was not immediately returned. Bass said McCotter indicated to him that he took the situation seriously and would take appropriate steps to correct the sewage problems.

According to a press release sent late Tuesday by Big Horn Mountain Resorts, which operates the two lodges and the nearby Big Horn Ski Resort, a main sewer line froze due to unusually cold temperatures and high snowfall.

"There has been manual efforts to compensate for the problem but the manual efforts finally became inadequate," the statement read.

"Management voluntarily shut the resorts down to fix the problem," it continued.

The Wyoming Department of Health was investigating reports that employees may have been sickened by foul water, according to Kelly N. Weidenbach, a state surveillance epidemiologist.

Big Horn Mountain Resorts said it didn't expect the sewage problems to affect its summer season, which is scheduled to start Memorial Day weekend.

The latest allegations of sewage discharge are not the first to plague the resort company. In April 2004, the Environmental Protection Agency filed a notice of violation against the Big Horn Ski Resort for failing to monitor for nitrates and total coliform bacteria, and for failing to provide public notice for the violations within one year. It also charged the resort with failing to report violations to the EPA within 48 hours and failing to report coliform monitoring violations to the EPA within 10 days of discovering the violation.

Lovett said people should stay out of the pond and waters possibly affected by the sewage discharge, but added people are not recreating in the waters this time of year.

The sewage situation outside Ten Sleep is the second to be reported in the last few weeks. Alpine in Lincoln County has been conducting an investigation of a problem with its wastewater treatment plant, which discharges into the Snake River and Palisades Reservoir.

Casper-Star Tribune, April 12th, 2007