Water

Montana water quality law sparks environmental lawsuit

Environmental nonprofit Upper Missouri Waterkeeper filed a lawsuit Thursday against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over its handling of a new Montana law that eases regulations on nutrient pollution in the state’s waterways.

At issue is Senate Bill 358, a measure passed by the Montana Legislature in 2021 that directs the Montana Department of Environmental Quality to repeal digital water quality standards for nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus and convene a work Groups draft alternative standards based on narrative standards. According to DEQ spokeswoman Moira Davin, the nutrition working group developed an initial set of replacement rules earlier this year and is expected to issue a final proposal in October.

Proponents of the measure, signed into law by Gov. Greg Gianforte last April, argued that treating wastewater to levels dictated by digital standards would be costly. At a committee meeting before Montana lawmakers last year, they also said that when DEQ adopted digital water quality standards in 2014, the expected better wastewater treatment technology had yet to emerge.

The Upper Missouri Waterkeeper believes the digital water quality standards are just the science-based and enforceable nutrition regulations that the EPA has been urging states to adopt for two decades. The environmental group described Montana as a “regression” in water quality protection in the U.S. due to SB 358, and claimed waterways would be degraded by nutrient pollution, which breeds harmful algal blooms and draws oxygen from aquatic ecosystems. It also said the technology to treat water to the state’s previous digital standards could be expensive, but it does exist, and argues that wastewater treatment plants should make progress in treating water to those standards.

The state environmental agency DEQ oversees the granting of wastewater treatment plant permits to Montana towns. The EPA is the federal environmental agency that has ultimate authority over the nation’s water quality standards and is responsible for ensuring that state agencies like DEQ comply with the federal Clean Water Act.

A 2020 report found that 35 percent of Montana’s river mileage and 22 percent of its lake area assessed by DEQ are believed to be damaged by nutrient pollution, which, in severe cases, can kill fish and produce Toxins and bacterial growth that are harmful to human health.

The new lawsuit from the Upper Missouri Waterkeeper argues that under federal law, the EPA should take action to formally approve or disapprove changes to water quality standards in Montana. Specifically, Waterkeeper said the Clean Water Act requires the EPA to approve or stop implementing new state regulations like SB 358 within 90 days.Clean Water Act requires EPA to prepare “immediately” proposals to replace water quality standards amid EPA decision not to approve state changes to water quality rules The final rule is expected to be issued in no more than 90 days.

Nearly a year after Gianforte signed SB 358 into law, the EPA has failed to take even preliminary steps to determine whether the measure meets federal water quality standards, the environmental group said.So it asked the U.S. District Court in Great Falls to compel the agency “Immediately approve or disapprove Montana’s revised water quality standards.”

“Under the Clean Water Act, states cannot legally override science-based standards for protecting the health of waterways and propose unproven and ineffective pollution control programs that allow polluters to do what they can to protect waterways, as Montana has done. Get away with your due contribution. Water quality,” Guy Alsentzer, executive director of Upper Missouri Water Stewards, said in a release. “Ignoring the best available science and creating a new pollution control waiver program is wrong, illegal and dirty; it’s the EPA’s job to ensure our state adequately protects our clean water resources.”

Waterkeeper said the narrative standard was in effect, citing the DEQ’s actions around Helena’s sewerage permit as evidence. According to the complaint, although the agency has “suspended” review of the city’s application submitted last summer using the new narrative standard, there is currently no effective digital nutrition standard standard that “allows Helena to operate without a water quality-based effluent limit.”

“Under the Clean Water Act, states cannot legally override science-based standards for protecting the health of waterways and propose unproven and ineffective pollution control programs that allow polluters to do what they can to protect waterways, as Montana has done. Get away with your due contribution. Water quality.”

Guy Alsentzer, Executive Director, Upper Missouri Waterkeeper

In the document, Waterkeeper states that some communication has occurred between the EPA and DEQ. Specifically, the EPA sent a letter to DEQ in August raising concerns about the state’s move to non-numerical standards and making recommendations on how narrative standards could limit nutrient pollution.

SB 258 sponsor R-Big Timber said in an interview this week that he is disappointed that the matter is now being litigated, saying it could mean hundreds of thousands of Montanas could face higher water and sewer bills, To pay for more expensive treatment techniques.

“It has to be something we can afford,” he said. “If we continue to add tens of millions of dollars [for] It’s not fair to our citizens for cities to abide by regulations that weren’t possible in the first place. “

He also said he believed the lawsuit was premature.

“We haven’t even finished writing the rules to implement 358, so it’s a little disappointing that the Waterkeeper chose to go to court rather than sit and work around the table with the rest of us,” Esp said.

Upper Missouri Waterkeeper is part of the DEQ Nutrition Task Force, which also includes input from municipalities, the EPA, the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, as well as the Montana Livestock Association, Montana Wood Products Association, Montana Representatives of industry organizations such as the Dana Mining Association and the Montana Mining Association. Montana Petroleum Association.

“We haven’t even finished writing the rules to implement 358, so it’s a little disappointing that the Waterkeeper chose to go to court rather than sit and work around the table with the rest of us.”

Sponsor of Senate Bill 358 John Esp, R-Big Timber

The environmental group said the EPA had failed to fulfill its “federal support” role under the Clean Water Act, instead allowing Montana to ignore federal laws as the state undermined the agency’s two-year push to push states toward digital water quality The standard of effort to transform.

“We’re talking about a state law that blatantly goes against that, based on undue considerations, political whims and economics,” Alsentzer said in an interview. “The EPA needs to do everything it can to show that this is going too far — you’re not following the rules, you’re not using the science, and you’re not allowed to do it,” he said.

DEQ spokeswoman Moira Davin said in an emailed statement to the Montana Free Press that the agency “will continue to work with the Nutrition Working Group of Upper Missouri Water Stewards” and expects the group to issue a final rule in October Bag.

An EPA spokesman said the agency does not comment on pending lawsuits. The agency faces a late May deadline to respond to the court action.

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