Waterkeeper Raises Concerns on Proposed Pollution Permit for the Town of Manhattan

Last week, Upper Missouri Waterkeeper submitted comments to the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) concerning the proposed groundwater discharge permit for the Town of Manhattan in Gallatin County. 

The new permit proposes that the Town of Manhattan’s existing wastewater treatment system be used to “create an additional discharge structure to help mitigate existing summertime discharges to the Gallatin River.”

Waterkeeper raised several concerns with the proposed permit. The main concerns are that:

  • The permit fails to adequately examine the cumulative or direct impacts of authorizing new nutrient pollution to the E. Gallatin River, which is already impaired for excessive nutrient pollution and listed on the State’s 303d List of Impaired Waters;
  • The permit improperly determined that authorizing a new groundwater discharge permit to the Town of Manhattan was “per se nonsignificant” and did not require evaluation under MCA 75-5-303. The agency has a mandate to take a hard look at cumulative impacts and surface water impacts before determining a new source of pollution as nonsignificant, especially when discharging in a watershed with an impaired waterbody, yet DEQ performed no such evaluation, despite the applicant’s own data demonstrating that the groundwater discharge will enter groundwater flowing downgradient in concentrations that violate water quality standards. Waterkeeper believes the proposed discharge permit is in fact significant by virtue of cumulative impacts, and that DEQ is required to apply its nondegradation policy. 
  • DEQ’s Environmental Assessment failed to discuss the project’s potential to, cumulatively or synergistically in concert with other septic pollution, degrade ground and surface water. 

It should be noted that the Town of Manhattan’s existing NPDES permit authorizing discharges to Dita Ditch, a tributary to the E Gallatin RIver, fails to attain applicable numeric nutrient effluent limits and its discharges have the potential to cause or contribute to violations of water quality standards. 

Sadly, the proposed new groundwater pollution permit reflects a political calculation that regulators are unwill to require municipalities to develop the necessary funding sources to solve the dilemma of unlawful pollution to an impaired waterway and addressing continued population growth through upgraded treatment at a centralized facility. Instead, DEQ is working with engineers to essentially spread the town’s pollution around in hopes of dilution before it reaches surface water. Doing so is not an anticipatory and preventative approach to water pollution control, especially when far better control technology exists and significant state and federal money is available to support generational wastewater upgrades. 

In its comment letter, Waterkeeper recommends that DEQ:

  1. Perform a cumulative impacts analysis assessing the proposed new groundwater discharges and other existing and proposed nutrient discharges within the watershed;
  2. Examine the impacts of the proposed discharge on water quality in downgradient surface waters;
  3. Reconsider its significance determination and exemption of the project from nondegradation review;
  4. Withdraw the instant permit and instruct the Town of Manhattan that it is inappropriate to expend limited resources on a supplemental new groundwater discharge, and should instead invest its resources in further proven upgrades to its centralized treatment facility capable of attaining water quality standards.

Gallatin County is experiencing an unprecedented development boom and many new wastewater projects, like the one at-hand, are being built without DEQ taking a hard look at the carrying capacity of the local watershed to accept increased and continued new nutrient pollution inputs. The permit and fact sheet do not provide evaluation of the nearby water bodies’ capacity to accept the proposed wastewater pollutant loads. Without such assessments, DEQ’s approval of the permit would be in violation of the Montana Water Quality Act, arbitrary and capricious. 

Aside from a groundwater discharge permit, there are solutions to the Town of Manhattan’s wastewater disposal problem that include upgrading its treatment system to treat to higher levels. Spreading pollution around and hoping for dilution is not the answer to protecting Montana’s waterways, our wildlife, or our outdoors heritage.