Estimated 35 Million Gallons of Wastewater Spills into Gallatin River

A wastewater treatment facility pipe broke Thursday, spilling an estimated 35 million gallons of treated sewage water into the Gallatin River.

photo by Bozeman Daily Chronicle

Initial reports indicate the wastewater comes from both the Big Sky Sewer District and the wastewater treatment facility used at the Yellowstone Club. The wastewater was flowing into Second Yellow Mule Creek and then into the south branch of the West Fork of the Gallatin River which eventually runs into the Madison and Missouri rivers.

The club estimated that the spill will be contained within 24 hours and issued the following statement: “The water is treated to a high level and not a risk to human contact.”

The Montana Department of Environmental Quality said the spill would not pose a threat to human health but did not address the river’s aquatic life. The DEQ told the Bozeman Daily Chronicle it would have no further comment Thursday night.

Our concern is that discharging a vast quantity of wastewater into any body of water can create a toxic environment for local fish and water quality. Based on the photos and initial reports posted by Explore Big Sky, we are concerned about the level of treatment the spilled sewage received, and what precisely was in the spill that made it into local waterways and ultimately, the Gallatin. The spilled wastewater may contain unhealthy levels of E. coli, phosphorus, and chloride, not to mention parasites, pathogens and pharmaceuticals.

In response Upper Missouri Waterkeeper sampled the Gallatin River in four separate locations, above and below the confluence of the West Fork and Gallatin Rivers Thursday night.  We are awaiting lab results.

Upper Missouri Waterkeeper would like to know to what extent aquatic life has been affected, and moreover to what extent this disaster does not pose a human health hazard. Is it not a threat because humans will not be swimming in it during the winter? Or because we don’t drink directly from the river?  Why did DEQ have no further comment on Thursday night, and more importantly, what does their investigation entail and what are they finding.

photo by Explore Big Sky

As the photographs show, there was substantial volume of wastewater making its way into the Gallatin River.

Outdated infrastructure is a serious threat to Montana’s rivers, our important fisheries, and our communities.

In 1997, High Country News reported that underneath Big Sky, miles of sewer and water lines suffered lack of quality control. “Pipes cracked or were crushed as they were buried; pipes of differing sizes were merely shoved together, and where pipes didn’t reach each other, the gaps were simply buried. From the moment the water mains were turned on and the first toilets flushed, tapwater and sewage gushed from countless underground leaks.”

If we knew this back in 1997, why are accidents like this happening today?

Many questions remain. We hope that DEQ and the Yellowstone Club can bring clarity to this situation because when 35 million gallons of wastewater spills into our pristine rivers, someone needs to be held accountable. Someone needs to answer questions – maybe the most important one being: How do we prevent this from happening in the future?

Southwest Montanans need to begin a dialogue about the threats posed by outdated infrastructure and water treatment methods. As our region continues to experience new growth and development, we need to be proactive in giving our region’s most important resources – our waterways – the protection they deserve.

We need to move forward to protect the Gallatin, united by our common belief in the value of clean water and the unique, special importance of a clean, free-flowing Gallatin River. We will be watchdogging clean up efforts and working to make sure decisionmakers take meaningful steps toward protecting all of our rivers from disasters like this moving forward. If you are concerned about the issue of waste water infrastructure and its threats to Montana’s rivers, please contact us – we want to hear from you. Let’s come up with solutions.