Conservation Organizations Challenge Unlawful Big Sky Pollution Permit

Upper Missouri Waterkeeper and Montana Environmental Information Center File Suit Against DEQ’s Issuance of Septic Pollution Permit in Big Sky

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Monday, July 19, 2021


Quincey Johnson, Upper Missouri Waterkeeper (406) 624-9261

BOZEMAN, MT – Upper Missouri Waterkeeper and the Montana Environmental Information Center (MEIC) jointly filed a complaint against Montana’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) for unlawfully permitting a septic discharge for a new suburb and commercial development in Big Sky’s Canyon without considering the negative, cumulative impacts of new sewage pollution on surface water and noxious algal blooms in the Gallatin River.

“Exempting wastewater discharge permits from meaningful pollution control is a huge disservice to all Montanans, and particularly alarming for river systems already overloaded by wastewater pollution. This pattern of ignoring the pollution impacts of poor development needs to end immediately given the intense development pressure in Big Sky and the Gallatin River’s recurring, severe algal blooms,” said Guy Alsentzer, Executive Director of Upper Missouri Waterkeeper. “Poor pollution permits like Lazy J South not only violate the law and Montanans’ right to a ‘clean and healthful environment’, they also put the Gallatin River’s world-class cold water fishery and our outdoor economy at risk. The Gallatin and all the communities it supports deserve better.”

“The Montana DEQ is asleep at the switch when it comes to protecting our water from irresponsible subdivisions and poorly planned development,” stated Derf Johnson, staff attorney with MEIC. “The permit in Big Sky is just emblematic of a much larger, statewide problem where DEQ is purposely ignoring the best science and common sense on water quality and cumulative impacts so that it can continue to issue permits. It’s wrong, and that’s why we took them to court.”

The project, Lazy J South, is a 200+ acre lot subdivided into 5-acre plots located along Highway 191. The developers purchased both the land and a “zombie” wastewater discharge permit from the previous owners that had been approved 14 years ago under relaxed oversight, substandard treatment technology requirements, and before expansive development occurred in the area. The permit was never used and the lots were never developed.

Fast forward to 2020: new owner-developers applied for and received approval by DEQ to build out dozens of 5-acre, poorly designed residential lots and new commercial development using the same 2006 wastewater discharge permit. DEQ’s approval authorizes new development while relying on antiquated, 1990s-level sewage treatment from a septic system without updates or a comprehensive cumulative look at its impacts to water quality.

Lazy J South’s septic permit is the first new significant discharge permit authorized in Big Sky’s Canyon in the last ten years, representing an increase of almost 20% of the existing, cumulative septic discharges to local water resources that are already having measurable, degrading impacts on groundwater and the Gallatin River.  Equally troubling, the issuance of the Lazy J South septic pollution permit flies in the face of recent progress the community has made in establishing a new Big Sky Canyon Sewer District for the specific purpose of stopping use of degrading septic systems and offering better sewage treatment at centralized facilities.

Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology groundwater sampling shows that concentrations of harmful nitrates from poor wastewater disposal practices in the Canyon area have increased pollution concentrations as much as 10-fold in the past decade. These unnaturally high nutrient loads are transported by local groundwater into the downgradient Gallatin River, less than a ½ mile distant.  Without meaningful environmental reviews and responsible pollution control planning by DEQ, allowing more septic pollution in Big Sky’s Canyon can only exacerbate recurring algal blooms on the Gallatin.

Outdated, antiquated septic systems in Montana lead to water quality impairments, as nutrients found in septic pollution degrade groundwater and surface water quality, causing algal blooms that harm aquatic life and damage bug life cycles, diminish recreational experiences, degrade fisheries habitat, and contaminate drinking water.

By issuing Lazy J South’s discharge permit, Montana DEQ is in violation of its mandatory duty to take a hard look at the environmental impacts of any proposed water pollution permit, and its duty to only issue groundwater discharge permits that ensure no unlawful degradation of hydrologically connected surface waters.

Read the full complaint here.

Montanans have a constitutional right to a “clean and healthful environment”, requiring state agencies to be proactive in both identifying troublesome water pollution trends and in taking steps to control pollution that is degrading our waterways. Yet as seen with Lazy J South, DEQ continues to rubber stamp pollution permits that exacerbate ongoing water pollution problems instead of standing up for the public’s right to a clean, healthy Gallatin River.