YSEALI Adventures

Missoula's wastewater treatment facility: A model for ASEAN countries

EcoCupid explores the successful wastewater treatment facility in Missoula, Montana, revealing how effective treatment can be achieved even in small self-governing towns.

by Bryan YONG

IT’S SO COLD in Missoula, Montana, the morning rain might as well freeze mid-air.  But the City of Missoula’s wastewater treatment facility kept flowing. Heavy and slippery footsteps hammered on industrial stairways and corridors as our student tour zigzagged across pipelines, filters, and giant tanks. The YSEALI Academic Fellowship on Environmental Issues cohort came here for a site visit. I had to tuck my camera and phone underneath my jacket as I scramble to take notes in the drizzling cold.

(Feature Photo: Pranav Krishna)

Underground pipe works at the Missoula Wastewater Treatment Plant. (Bryan Yong)

Missoula Wastewater Treatment Facility

The facility makes sure smelly, dirty, and toxic sewage is taken care of in the Missoula area. Even rural neighbourhoods that immediately surround the city centre get to flush their toilet water here. Hurray! Of course, in return, households need to pay the Missoula City Council for the treatment services.

A designated spokesperson is assigned to take visitors on study tours through the facility. (Weeraya Vichayaprasertkul)

Wastewater treatment begins with the collection. Water coming from urban areas has a spiderweb for an underground sewage system that sends wastewater to the facility. Rural areas where the housing density is low, however, don’t. Instead, the city council installs individual stinky-proof septic tanks for rural households to flush their toilets and sinks into. These backyard tanks feed wastewater to the central sewage treatment facility via smaller connecting pipes. 

Septic tanks not only work for rural households, but they also work for established urban areas where digging up roads and people’s houses is a bad idea. Montana is so big that its rural neighbourhoods tend to be very isolated. And yet Missoula has found a way to connect rural households to centralised wastewater treatment services.

Wastewater that reaches the facility is first filtered for trash, gravel, and grease. Then local river bacteria cultures are used to eat up any organic pollutants. Thirdly, Missoula’s facility uses fancy ultraviolet radiation and carbon filters to remove foul odours and dangerous microbes, the first municipal installation in the country. Not surprising, given Missoula’s full of smart people. Treated water then is released into the Clark Fork River.

As a result of physical treatment, bio-solid residue will be sent to a composting facility within the same compound. Icky and smelly sludge from biological treatment is used to produce methane gas that helps power the facility. The facility also plays Farmville and plants lots of hybrid poplar trees to suck up phosphorus and nitrogen from the treated water, as an extra measure to control water quality.

Gross profits in ASEAN wastewater industries

Wastewater treatment industries in Southeast Asia are growing faster than TikTok. A report by Nikkei Asia interprets that wastewater treatment investments in ASEAN countries are increasing 5 times faster than the rest of the world in just five years from 2015 to 2020.

ASEAN countries with less than 10% of efficient wastewater treatment include Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Thailand, Timor Leste, and Vietnam. That’s 7/11. Compared to the small self-governing township of Missoula, Montana, most ASEAN countries may have limited financial resources and may not be able to invest in the construction and maintenance of wastewater treatment plants. And because of the possible lack of infrastructure, ASEAN countries have difficulty effectively treating wastewater. For most of the countries mentioned, there are more immediate water problems that need to be hard-boiled like potable water supply.

Countries like Indonesia, Myanmar, the Philippines, and Vietnam know they have poor wastewater treatment systems and are dumping massive budgets to improve their infrastructure. But money does not grow out from the Mekong Basin and poorer countries like Cambodia had to depend heavily on international money aid to develop any reasonable amount of wastewater treatment systems.

The City of Missoula’s wastewater treatment facility is a flush of success, showing how effective wastewater treatment can be achieved, even in a small self-governing township like Missoula, Montana. The facility connects rural households to centralised treatment services, effectively treating wastewater and protecting the environment. Despite the fact that most of the ASEAN countries have limited financial resources and may not be able to invest in the construction and maintenance of wastewater treatment plants, by learning from examples like Missoula, it is possible to improve the wastewater treatment situation and prevent environmental damage.

Bryan Yong

Bryan Yong is a freelance environmental journalist and chief editor for EcoCupid. With a background in oceanography and experience volunteering with youth environmental NGOs in Malaysia, he brings curiosity and enthusiasm to discover Southeast Asia’s environmental movement through his stories. Bryan is an avid traveller and loves local food the most.

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