State Violated Constitutional Right to Know and Right to Participate in Agency Decision-Making
On Friday, October 13, 2023, Upper Missouri Waterkeeper and its members filed a complaint against the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) for its approval of the Deep Well Ranch Regional Wastewater System in West Yellowstone, a new major wastewater treatment and disposal system for existing and new commercial development just outside Yellowstone National Park. DEQ approved the Deep Well Regional Wastewater System without any public processes or transparency, as is afforded citizens in the Constitution, and on the basis of a flawed environmental analysis.
“Our 19th century family homestead and guest ranch is located less than a couple hundred feet from new center pivot sewage discharge sprinklers, spraying aerosolized human waste into the wind that will inevitably damage my property, livelihood, and business, yet I was never informed of any land application disposal until it was too late,” said Rex Portmann, adjacent and longtime landowner in West Yellowstone. “This is our government, and DEQ is supposed to work for us. But, in reality, the agency is bending over backwards for major corporations while completely ignoring their responsibilities to the general public.”
The Deep Well Ranch Regional Wastewater System, which will serve KOA’s – the world’s largest private campground franchise – Mountainside and Holiday West Yellowstone campgrounds and their commercial build-out. It consists of wastewater treatment lagoons that will store up to 3,923,287 gallons, or nearly 6 olympic-sized swimming pools worth of wastewater, center pivot wastewater disposal, and a new sewer main connecting the system to the Mountainside KOA Sewer Outfall line that was approved by DEQ in March 2022.
DEQ has known about and considered various iterations of the Deep Well Ranch Regional Wastewater Facility for some time, yet failed to uphold the public’s constitutional right to know and right to participate. DEQ never notified the public of the major decision to create a significant new public wastewater treatment facility and dispose of millions of gallons of wastewater, nor provided opportunities for the public to comment and participate in decision-making prior to making approvals. These failures are a clear violation of Montanans’ constitutional rights.
“It’s clear DEQ violated Montanans’ constitutional right to know and participate when it neglected any public process for the Deep Well Regional Wastewater System,” said Guy Alsentzer, Executive Director of Upper Missouri Waterkeeper. “When DEQ works behind closed doors to allow commercial development it unnecessarily threatens local businesses, communities, water supplies, and wildlife. In West Yellowstone, this situation is even more disturbing as the agency failed to consider the impacts of a new regional wastewater facility on local waterways and wildlife just outside of our nation’s first National Park.”
On top of failing to provide any public processes, DEQ also failed to adequately consider the impacts of the Deep Well Regional Wastewater Facility on nearby waterways and critical wildlife habitat during its stunted MEPA reviews. Situated nearly five miles from Yellowstone National Park, the area is a known wildlife corridor for big game species including grizzly and black bears, elk, and wolverine, and birthing grounds for pronghorn. On the water side Denny Creek, a tributary of the South Fork of the Madison River, a headwater for Hebgen Lake, flows across the property, posing potential pollution impacts from the wastewater lagoons, which are known to leak, on nearby surface and groundwater, not to mention disposing of millions of gallons of sewage through irrigation pivots.
“This is such an ecologically unique place, boasting iconic wildlife, world-class rivers, and rich Native American and Yellowstone history located a stone’s throw from Yellowstone National Park,” said Brandon Lewis, conservationist and advocate for the Diamond P Ranch in West Yellowstone. “It’s disturbing that the DEQ approved these plans and the KOA began construction, all without notifying their neighbors or conducting a meaningful environmental assessment. We deserve more, nature deserves more, and law itself affords us more.”
Waterkeeper will protect its members’ right to informed decision-making and hold DEQ accountable to follow the law and meaningfully inform and include the public in major governmental actions affecting our outdoors.