The physical environment encompasses both environmental quality and the built environment. In the Quality of Life Health Assessment, environmental quality refers to the non-man made aspects of the area in which we live, which includes the air, water, soil, plants and wildlife. The built environment includes all of the physical parts of where we live and work, including streets, open spaces, infrastructure and recreation. These definitions are adapted from both the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organizations. Here, we highlight parts of the physical environment as they relate to health and wellness in Richland County.
The physical environment plays a significant role in health and wellness. Both poor water and air quality may contribute to the development of disease. Access to parks, trails and other methods of recreation play a role in the development of obesity and other chronic diseases.
Richland County's Active Richland County Action Group completed the PACE-EH environmental health assessment in 2019. The PACE-EH assessment is a best practice method to collect community input on environmental health concerns and priorities. Among a list of issues, participants identified several priority issues relating to both the built environment and environmental quality in Richland County.
The built environment and access to recreation and active transportation have a positive effect on physical activity and the prevention and development of chronic disease. National studies have shown that the availability and proximity to recreation facilities have been consistently associated with greater physical activity, and that those perceiving limited access to these resources were nearly two times less likely to meet physical activity guidelines than those perceiving access to these resources. Further, key characteristics of built environments and community design, including population density, location relative to community destinations, and the interconnections available to reach those destinations essentially determine the level of active transportation within a community. Residents are more likely to participate in active transportation such as walking or biking when streets have sidewalks and are well-lit, and pedestrians are shielded from traffic.
Richland County residents experience significant barriers to physical activity and active transport in terms of population density, proximity to community destinations, and the protection of pedestrians from traffic. Richland County is considered a frontier county according to the Rural Health Information Hub, having a population of 11039 residents to 2103 square miles, or a population density of 5.2 residents per square mile, according to US Census Bureau 2017 estimates. Only 65.4% of the population lives within the incorporated City of Sidney and Town of Fairview. Many residents travel extensively to reach destinations such as grocery stores, medical facilities, schools, work, and recreation facilities. In all areas of Richland County, the total household person-miles traveled daily was more than 70 miles, and 6.3% of the populations traveled more than 60 minutes to work.
The incorporated and unincorporated areas of Richland County are connected by state highways, which are highly-traveled and not amenable to safe walking, biking, or other active transportation. Sidewalks exist in some areas of the incorporated areas of Richland County, but are incomplete and in poor condition in many areas. Sidewalks are rare in the unincorporated areas.
The City of Sidney has an extensive parks network and a fragmented existing trails system, according to the 2015 Growth Policy. The Town of Fairview has two parks maintained by municipal employees. The unincorporated areas of Richland County have parks or green spaces, in addition to both state and Federal lands.
There are many environmental quality factors that affect health, including air quality, water quality, and solid waste. In Montana, the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) largely regulates or monitors these factors. Locally, Richland County-specific data exists for some factors and outcomes.
The City of Sidney, Fairview, and Lambert have public water supplies that are regulated by state and federal rules and standards. Each system is required to have a trained operator. Additionally, the systems receive regular inspections to ensure that the water provided meets strict standards. Each system is required to produce an annual consumer confidence report that is to be made available to the public. Each public system strives to provide a dependable, clean source of water for the residents that it serves.
Those homes that are not connected to these public systems generally rely on individual water wells or small community or shared systems for drinking water.
Richland County operates one Intermediate Class II solid waste landfill located north of Sidney. The Richland County Landfill accepts household waste, agricultural and construction waste, tires, and metals, such as appliances, among other waste products. The Solid Waste District provides three alternative locations for household garbage drop sites.
The tonnage of household garbage disposed of at the Landfill had decreased between 2016 and 2018. In general, waste tonnage in each waste category decreased during this time.
Richland County permits residents in portions of McKenzie and Williams Counties, North Dakota and Roosevelt County, Montana (Culbertson) to utilize the Landfill for an annual fee. The chart to the left shows the breakdown of waste collected from each site.
Based on current collections, the estimated life of the landfill is 88-90 years.
Richland County residents have access to recycling service through Richland Opportunities, Inc. (ROI), a local non-profit that provides vocactional services for individuals with developmental disabilities. ROI collects #'s 1-7 plastics, corrugated cardboard, aluminum, newspapers, office paper and magazines and uses any funds generated to support vocational services. ROI began offering recycling services in 1991, and has kept more than 9 million pounds of recyclable material out of the landfill.
Junk vehicles may also be recycled through a direct-haul contract between Richland County and Border Steel & Recycling in Sidney. The Junk Vehicle grant program is administered through the Montana DEQ. The number of vehicles recycled annually is largely affected by both the price of scrap metals and the willingness of residents to dispose of their junk vehicles.
Air quality is largely monitored and regulated by Montana DEQ. Radon poses the largest air quality risk to Richland County residents. Radon is a radioactive gas formed by the natural radioactive decay of uranium in rock, soil and water. Low levels of uranium occur naturally in the Earth's crust, and can be found across Montana. Radon is released through cracks in the ground and is dissolved in water. Therefore, radon exposure can be through the air or through water. Radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the United States due to prolonged exposure over time. Most counties in Montana have average indoor radon levels at or above 4 picoCuries per Liter (pCi/L), the Environmental Protection Agencies' (EPA) recommended action level. The average radon level in Montana is 7.4 pCi/L. The average radon level in Richland County is 5.9 pCi/L, with 60.7% of readings over the EPA action level.