Hot Topic: SB325 state workgroup

SB 325, originally sponsored by Sen. Jim Keane, D-Butte, prohibits the Board of Environmental Review (BER) from establishing water quality standards stringent enough to protect Montana’s rivers and streams, and will have a particular impact on irrigators on southeast Montana tributaries, such as Otter Creek and the Tongue River, and on threatened rivers in West-Central Montana like the Missouri.

Cartoon courtesy of Northern Plains Resource Council

Cartoon via Northern Plains Resource Council (who do excellent work protecting Eastern Montana’s rivers!)

The Issue: Weakening river health standards and allowing more river pollution

As applied to rivers, the bill sanctions a reconsideration of what “natural condition” means in terms of pollution.  As the legislative record shows from 2015, more often than not the bill is intended to allow increased pollution (like salinity) downstream from proposed industrial projects like the Otter Creek strip mine and coal bed methane wells in Rosebud County.

New versions of “natural condition” could also be made for waterways dramatically affected by industrial pollution in the Upper Missouri River Basin like Prickly Pear Cr in the Helena Valley, or even the mainstem Missouri around Great Falls.

To be clear, a law that weakens water quality standards by allowing increased river pollution -such as high levels of salt, turbidity, or nitrogen and phosphorus – represents a clear threat to Montana’s rivers, families, local business, and our fisheries.

The Implementation Process: SB325 Workgroup

A new state workgroup has convened monthly in Helena since the new year with an apparent purpose of building consensus on what rules implementing this bad law should look like. Waterkeeper is troubled not only by the scientific consequences of how SB 325 can weaken important water quality standards that protect our rivers, but also by the workgroup’s emphasis on using variances as a tool to allow polluters to discharge more pollution into Montana’s rivers.  Click here to view the DEQ’s website on the SB 325 workgroup.

Since EPA’s approval of Montana’s Numeric Nutrient Rule Package in 2015, the state of Montana’s DEQ has repeatedly dragged forward the concept of “variances from water quality standards” as tools to weaken clean water protections.

  • Click here to read more about problems with the Numeric Nutrient Rule Package – specifically its variance rule allowing polluters 20-year waivers from complying with important clean water standards.

  • Click here to read more about EPA’s approval – and continuing problems with – variances from numeric nutrient rules.

DEQ and the Montana legislature’s increasing reliance on variances is legally and scientifically wrong: if polluters need time to come into compliance with pollution limits, the state should be enforcing compliance schedules, which provide transparent, accountable timeframes to reduce pollution.

The state of Montana shouldn’t be in the business of trying to use legal definitions such as twisted versions of “natural condition” to allow more pollution in our rivers.

Next Steps

The backwards intent of anti-clean water laws like SB 325 represents a fundamental misunderstanding of clean water law under the federal Clean Water Act, as well as a misguided emphasis on protecting big polluting industry instead of Montana’s rivers and the communities they support.

Waterkeeper will be watchdogging the SB325 workgroup’s progress and weighing-in on proposed new rules or regulations that threaten to undermine critical clean water protections or allow increased pollution in our rivers.