Fact Sheet: Draft Environmental Assessment for the Quarry Project

Fact Sheet: Draft Environmental Assessment for the Quarry Project
Residential Subdivision #1
EQ# 22-22120 & 22-2092
Big Sky, MT

What is the Quarry Project?

  • A “Planned Unit Development” of new phased residential and commercial construction
  • Sited on 175 acres, reclaiming the old gravel pit in Big Sky’s Canyon Area, just west of Highway 191, south of the Conoco gas station and north of Lazy J South
  • Proposed use of dozens of new septic systems for waste treatment
  • Located < 1,500′ and upgradient to the Gallatin River

What’s Being Proposed?

The Quarry Project is a new, multi-phase “Planned Unit Development” (PUD) in Big Sky’s Canyon Area, including high density new residential and commercial development, sited at the old gravel pit just off HWY 191 near the Conoco gas station.

In 2019 Gallatin County approved a PUD for the Quarry Project despite significant public opposition due to potential water resource impacts including the development’s close proximity to the Gallatin River and its proposed use of septic systems for wastewater treatment and disposal to local groundwater. The gravel pit operations did not finish until Fall 2022, and now the developer is ready to move forward with its proposals. However, before the Quarry Project can begin, in addition to County approval the project requires water pollution control approvals and an environmental impacts review.

The Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) is the state agency tasked with administering water pollution control requirements of the Sanitation Act, MCA 76-4-101, the Water Quality Act, MCA 75-5-101, and also requirements of the Montana Environmental Policy Act, MCA 75-1-101, and the federal Clean Water Act, 33 USC 1251.

Because the Quarry Project includes new wastewater pollution discharges, the DEQ is required to review the project and condition the project as necessary to maintain and attain local water quality standards. New development is not allowed to pollute local water quality and degrade water resources unless the proposal satisfies a rigorous analysis. There are, however, exceptions to these otherwise stringent pollution controls that can operate to “exempt” new development proposals from undergoing the default rigorous analysis before being authorized.

At issue is how the Quarry Project is designed from a water pollution control standpoint, and how the DEQ’s review is improperly limited to considering only one phase of the project.

The Quarry Project is blatantly designed to avoid the robust discharge permit analysis and consideration of nutrient pollution impacts typically required by law. Likewise, DEQ’s EA fails to take a hard look at potential water resource impacts of the project, including related projects (such as other phases of development, other nutrient polluting activities in the region, and proposed resort-scale wastewater disposal in the Canyon Area).

Below are several critical flaws in the DEQ EA:

  • The project uses “phases” of development. This segmentation limits review of the project’s impacts on the environment and shortchanges meaningful consideration of the project’s aggregate and cumulative significance. For example, DEQ’s instant EA only considers Phase I, the “Residential Subdivision #1” at the Quarry Project, despite the fact that Gallatin County has approved an entire Quarry PUD with other phases (which DEQ has ignored in its EA).
  • The project proposes the use of dozens of septic systems that each discharge less than the regulatory trigger volume of 5,000 gpd, despite the aggregate wastewater discharge from the project totaling approximately 60,000 gpd. Using individual septic systems with lower individual discharge volume allows use of an unscientific DEQ categorical exemption from otherwise required pollution permitting.
  • The project’s reliance on individual septic systems possessing Level II treatment technology means there is a rebuttable presumption that such systems are “nonsignificant” and exempt from otherwise stringent discharge permit review. Proposing individual Level II septic systems for a PUD instead of using more expensive but far better treatment of wastes available at centralized facilities evades the hard look at aggregate pollution impacts on local water quality traditionally required at law.
  • Septic system drain fields are placed on the property to assure each is at least 1/4 mile away from the nearest surface water (in this case the Gallatin River), thereby triggering another unscientific DEQ categorical exemption that deems any Level II septic systems discharging >1/4 mile from surface water “nonsignificant” as a matter of law and thereby evading another otherwise required review.
  • DEQ’s EA fails to provide any discussion of reasonable and prudent alternative ways of developing the Quarry Project that may pose less-degrading impacts on the local environment. As but two examples, there is not discussion of requiring centralized wastewater treatment (ensuring better treatment levels), or requiring end-of-pipe pollution discharges to satisfy well-established numeric nutrient limits that would protect local waterway health.
  • The project relies on water rights traded from nearby Lazy J South to fulfill its water supply needs. Theoretically this trade is allowed by the Dept. of Natural Resources and Conservation policy. This water rights trade relies on the fact that treated sewage from the project will be discharged back into the Gallatin River system as proof of “no net loss” of water. Ironically, despite the DNRC buying this water rights trading, the DEQ has failed to examine any data about hydrologic connectivity of receiving groundwater and the Gallatin River, and likewise wholesale failed to examine potential impacts of authorizing > 60,000 gpd of new wastewater into an already degraded river system.
  • DEQ has unreasonably constrained and limited the public notice and comment period related to the EA. Waterkeeper requested that DEQ extend the comment deadline until after the winter holidays to ensure that well-informed and robust comments were submitted and DEQ declined this request. Issuing this Draft EA with only 20 days of notice and comment with the comment period ending between Christmas Day and New Year’s does not meet the MEPA goal that public comment periods should provide “adequate notice and assist public participation”. Providing less than the statutory default of 30 days of notice on the Draft EA for this highly controversial project is not adequate and putting the comment period during the winter holidays undercuts the effectiveness of the public notice and hampers public participation.

What are the impacts?

The big picture for the Quarry Project is its potentially significant impacts on local water resources in the middle segment Gallatin River system. Best available science indicates that the Canyon Area already contributes significant loads of unnatural nutrient pollution to the Gallatin River. In turn, science also establishes that the Gallatin River is very sensitive to unnatural nutrient loading above background levels.

Wastewater treatment systems, such as septic systems, do not treat wastes sufficiently to protect water quality in the Gallatin River system. Treatment offered by septic systems proposed by the Quarry Project can achieve treatment of approximately 5 mg/L Total Nitrogen, whereas the Gallatin River nitrogen standard is exponentially more stringent at 0.3 mg/L. While state law allows a rebuttable presumption that Level II septic systems are nonsignificant at law, the caveat is that those septic discharges cannot degrade local water quality. This latter legal requirement to assure “no degradation” of surface water is what’s at stake today in Big Sky with the largest new development project proposed for the Canyon Area in more than a decade.

Let’s remember the facts. The Gallatin River has “gone green” with severe nuisance algal blooms for five consecutive years. In response to a petition filed by Waterkeeper and partners, the DEQ issued a preliminary determination earlier in 2022 that the Gallatin River’s recurrent algal blooms violate water quality standards and represent a legal impairment, and therefore require a pollution clean-up plan. Best available science indicates most shallow groundwater in Big Sky’s Canyon Area flows to and discharges into the Gallatin River. Poorly treated wastewater therefore has a potentially significant impact on the Gallatin, and may contribute to ongoing cumulative degradation of this world-class waterway.

Similarly, septic systems do not treat wastewater sufficient to remove pathogens and nitrates, each of which can contaminate nearby drinking water wells. Public well data indicates local groundwater in Big Sky’s Canyon Area is steadily marching higher in pollution concentrations nearby drinking water supplies, implicating the need for better wastewater treatment and better disposal options than near drinking water supplies or the sensitive Gallatin River.

What is an Environmental Assessment (EA) and how does it affect me?

An Environmental Assessment (EA) is a document prepared by a state agency pursuant to our state’s leading “look before you leap” environmental law, the Montana Environmental Policy Act. The purpose of an EA is to document the purpose of the project, the alternative actions being considered, and analyze the impacts of each alternative.

Agencies publish EAs to allow the public to review the agency’s findings and provide meaningful feedback in the form of oral and/or written comments. Anyone with any concern about the project may submit comments to the agency. The agency must reply to significant comments in their final decision. Likewise, if there is significant public concern, or new data indicating previously undisclosed potential impacts, the agency is required to consider the need to perform a far more robust environmental analysis, called an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). In short, a comment you write could shape how the project proceeds.

  • The EA for the Quarry Project is available online here.
  • The original Quarry PUD application to Gallatin County is available here.
  • The Quarry PUD response to Gallatin County Commission’s initial project denial and request for more information is available here.
  • The most recent assessment of nutrient pollution sources and effects in the upper Gallatin, by WGM Group in 2020, is available here.
  • A summary of the proposed plan to send wastewater associated with future growth in Big Sky down to the Canyon Area for disposal at existing drain fields, including but not limited to the Quarry Project, is available here.
  • An assessment of full build-out and wastewater disposal in Big Sky’s Canyon Area is available here.

How Do I Make My Voice Heard Through an EA Comment?

To make your voice heard, you need to write a strong and personalized comment. Anyone, including non-lawyers, can write a good comment. A strong comment identifies the issue(s) you care about most, explains why the issue(s) is important, and provides solutions and/or direction to the agency in terms of what is necessary to assure a best possible decision on the project.

Citizen input is as much about identifying problems in agency proposals as it is about suggesting possible solutions. As much as possible, include remedies to the problems you identify. While a blank page may appear daunting, with the help of this resource writing your comment should be straightforward and a simple and effective way to make your voice heard.

How to Draft Your Comment:

  1. Introduce Yourself
    1. Give your name, where you live, and how close you are located to the project/how the project’s proposed location affects things you care about.
    2. Provide your occupation or background, especially if you have relevant expertise (i.e., engineering, science) that gives greater credibility to your assessment of the EA.
    3. State if you are authorized to speak on behalf of an organization.
  2. State that you oppose the Preferred Action Alternative because as designed the project creates potentially significant adverse impacts on the environment, and specifically its potentially significant water resource impacts. Opposing the selected agency action doesn’t mean you don’t support affordable housing, or oppose development generally, Rather, by opposing the EA’s conclusions you are telling the agency that you don’t support the current proposal design the agency has identified and studied.
  3. Explain how the proposed Quarry Project will impact you and your interests.
    1. Describe how the Quarry Project will affect your interests.
    2. Indicate with particularity how you use/depend on local water resources in Big Sky’s Canyon Area and/or the Gallatin River.
    3. If applicable, describe how the project may negatively impact your personal property and/or outdoors you frequent. I.e., the authorization of new septic system pollution may exacerbate ongoing degradation and algal blooms in the Gallatin River, may affect local drinking water supplies.
    4. If a nearby property owner, state if you are already experiencing water resource challenges (water supply and/or water quality challenges).
    5. Describe how you learned about the project/how well informed you were about the project and its impacts, and whether you think the 20-day comment period and its timing during the Christmas holiday creates meaningful public engagement opportunities.
  4. Identify the issue(s) you have with the draft EA and why those issues make the proposed agency action approving a Certificate of Subdivision Approval (COSA) inappropriate. For each issue:
    1. Clearly state what the issue is (i.e., failure to consider the phased PUD as a whole limits consideration of the project’s significance and consideration of appropriate conditions) and, if possible, include a reference to the relevant section of the EA.
      1. Identify any informational errors that underly basic EA assumptions
      2. Identify any missing or confusing information critical to understanding or remedying the specific impacts (or lack of identified impacts) described by the agency EA
      3. Describe the importance of the issue as it relates to the environmental review process (i.e., what shortcomings result from the issue?)
    2. Explain what the agency can do to resolve the issues by recommending further analysis, consideration of alternatives, or other factors for agency consideration.
      1. Identify new information that is relevant and could be helpful
      2. Propose alternative approaches that agency ought to consider
      3. Suggest additional studies an agency should complete
      4. Recommend specific courses of action the agency could take


Hardcopy letters: send to DEQ Water Quality Division, Engineering Bureau, PO Box 200901, Helena, MT 59620, C/O “Quarry Project EA Public Comment”

Electronic mail: send to DEQMEPA@mt.gov, subject title “Public Comment: The Quarry Project EA”

For more information contact Quincey@uppermissouriwaterkeeper.org
Find more resources online at www.UpperMissouriWaterkeeper.org/TakeAction