Big Sky Roundup

State panel recommends repairs to leaky sewers at state veterans’ home

By: - September 28, 2021 5:07 pm

Montana Senators talk with Adam Meier, who once led the Kentucky Department of Health and Human Services. He is Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte’s pick to lead the Montana Department of Health and Human Services (Photo by Montana Public Access Network)

A state commission tasked with allocating federal COVID-19 relief funds voted on Tuesday to recommend more than $1 million in improvements at the state veterans’ home in Columbia Falls, including for repairs to an aging sewer system that’s been leaking gas into residential quarters for months, according to a report from state officials.

The Health Advisory Commission is one of several groups of lawmakers and state administrators formed to guide programs and projects funded by the American Rescue Plan Act, a gargantuan federal COVID aid package that became law in March. The package triggered a mad dash in the Legislature to craft a process to handle the influx of funds in time for the end of the session.

The federal ARPA bill contains $250 million nationwide for one-time projects that either help prevent COVID-19 or improve the lives of residents at state veterans’ facilities, with the sum distributed based on the number of resident veterans in each state. On Tuesday, the state Department of Public Health and Human Services brought forth two proposals to fund improvements at the state veterans’ home in Columbia Falls, which will receive $1,004,788, and the Eastern Montana Veterans’ Home in Glendive, which will receive $546,723,

September 28 HAC final materials2

The state veterans’ home has a number of glaring problems, according to a memorandum prepared by DPHHS and presented to the commission, including 50-year-old sewer pipes that are leaking and releasing sewer gas odor into residences at the home, a situation “discovered in May 2021” that is “an immediate life-safety issue that needs quick resolution.”

The veterans home has reported that two feet of pipe are failing, but up to 112 feet could be impacted, according to DPHHS. The pipes are covered in concrete, so a plumber would need to stick a camera down the line to determine the full extent of failure. Repairs could cost around $200,000, the department said.

In the meantime, the DPHHS memo says that the veterans’ home has found a short-term solution by sealing the concrete and having staff scatter cat litter with a special deodorizer solution to mask the smell of raw sewage.

“This is not an optimal longterm solution because it does not solve the life-safety violation due to the presence of sewage,” the memo says.

The commission ultimately recommended those funds — final approval is in the hands of Gov. Greg Gianforte — as well as around $590,000 for HVAC improvements, money for new vehicles and an expansion to the facility’s wander prevention system. The commission also recommended more than half a million dollars for new countertops and cabinets, floors and a paint job at the Eastern Montana Veterans’ Home.

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Arren Kimbel-Sannit
Arren Kimbel-Sannit

Arren Kimbel-Sannit is an Arizona-bred journalist who has covered politics, policy and power building at every level of government. Before getting his dose of northern exposure, Arren worked as a reporter in all manner of Arizona newsrooms, for the Dallas Morning News and for POLITICO in Washington, D.C. He has a special interest in how land-use decisions affect working-class people, which he displayed through reporting on the epidemic of pedestrian deaths in the U.S. for the Los Angeles Times and PBS Newshour. He's also covered housing, agriculture, the Trump presidency and more.