State of Montana Moves Forward on Sham Water Quality Rulemaking

DEQ Public Listening Session Turns a Blind Eye to the Illegitimacy of Repealing Science-Based Pollution Control Standards

This week, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) hosted a sham listening session regarding Montana’s unlawful backslide from strong, science-based numeric nutrient standards, to ambiguous, narrative nutrient standards, through Governor Gianforte’s signature on Senate Bill 358. The agency continues to attempt to legitimize an unlawful process by coordinating a Nutrient Work Group and listening sessions when the very basis of the meetings – repealing science-based water quality standards – is in direct violation to the federal Clean Water Act.

“Rather than working toward a solution to address the most pervasive pollutant in Montana’s waterways, DEQ is wasting time and tax dollars on a sham process, spinning their wheels instead of taking proven steps to reduce nutrient pollution degrading our rivers,” said Quincey Johnson, Outreach Director of Upper Missouri Waterkeeper. “Federal law dictates that setting water quality standards isn’t about exploring cost-benefit analyses; rather, water quality standards must be science-based goal posts directing actions and activities for restoring waterway health and protecting clean water. The dysfunctional listening session held by DEQ this week brought forward more questions than answers, particularly about its lawfulness under federal law, and made it clear that the end-goal for major polluters is avoiding implementation of Montana’s strong numeric, nutrient standards and allowing more – not less – pollution discharges, all at the expense of our rivers and waterways.”

The rulemaking process has already gone off the deep-end during both the first reconvened SB 358 Nutrient Work Group meeting on May 27 and this week’s listening session. Point source polluters are busy pointing fingers at nonpoint source polluters, often agriculture, and rationalizing the lack of infrastructure & pollution control upgrades on high costs and energy consumption. These excuses conveniently omit the billions of dollars and thousands of jobs clean water and healthy waterways already create.  Montana’s waterways deserve better than a zero sum game of delay and inaction.

The solution to protecting and keeping Montana’s waterways healthy is not to let point source polluters off the hook and place blame elsewhere. Instead, polluting sectors should be thoughtfully planning and leveraging private and public investments in better pollution control technology that protect our rivers and all the diverse uses they support.

Nutrient pollution is a serious issue in Montana’s rivers and streams, yet the State of Montana, at the request of the Montana League of Cities and Towns with the support of the state’s largest point source polluters – the oil, gas, and mining industries – has eliminated science-based standards at law that protect our waterways from degradation, clearing the path for reckless new projects and increased pollution that will degrade waterways already suffering from chronic nutrient loading.

By repealing numeric standards under state law and pushing forward an unproven, adaptive management policy without EPA approval Montana is not only violating the federal Clean Water Act, but is also simultaneously wasting finite public resources, valuable time and money on an approach that’s not science-based and has prioritized special interest polluters bottom-lines over protecting our waterways and rivers – the lifeblood of Montana’s $7.1 billion outdoor economy and 71,000 jobs it supports.

Upper Missouri Waterkeeper petitioned the EPA on May 24 to disapprove Montana’s changes to Water Quality Standards, requesting the agency exercise its oversight authority under the Clean Water Act to determine that the changes under Senate Bill 358 fail to protect Montana’s waterways and their uses, are unlawful, and to reinstate Montana’s science-based numeric nutrient standards. Waterkeeper is committed to ensuring the State of Montana and the EPA follow the law and use best available science in setting water quality standards that protect fishable, swimmable, drinkable water and healthy Montana waterways.