Cities, industries given breathing room on new water standards

2012-11-29T00:15:00Z 2012-11-30T10:45:13Z Cities, industries given breathing room on new water standardsBy ED KEMMICK ekemmick@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

Dave Mumford is feeling better about strict new water standards than he was last year at this time.

Mumford is the director of the Billings Public Works Department, which operates the city's wastewater treatment plant.

Last year, Mumford was warning local officials and taxpayers about pending water-quality standards that he estimated would require improvements to the treatment plant costing $300 million.

"It's still going to be expensive, and we still have to get there, but we're finding ways to work together," Mumford said.

The biggest change, Mumford said, is that the Environmental Protection Agency has accepted the guidelines laid out in Senate Bill 365, passed by the Montana Legislature in 2011.

That bill gave the state 20 years to meet whatever nutrient standards are ultimately adopted by the state Department of Environmental Quality to reduce the amount of nitrogen and phosphorous in state lakes and waterways. 

Last year, it was unclear whether the EPA would accept more lenient standards or the phased-in approach to nutrient reduction.

SB367 also created categories of pollution sources, allowing different standards for large and small treatment plants, and still lower standards for communities with lagoon systems and no treatment plants.

"We could still get clean water, but we do it in a way that was good for Montana communities," said George Mathieus, with the DEQ's Water Quality Planning Bureau.

Mathieus and Mumford serve on the Nutrient Work Group, which was formed in 2009 to give the department advice on the standards and how to meet them. The group has representatives of cities and towns, industries that produce wastewater, state government, environmental groups and engineering firms.

In its annual report to the Environmental Quality Council in June, the work group said that if communities and industrial pollution sources were given time to work toward the stricter standards, "the standards could ultimately be achieved, given that technologies generally improve and become less expensive over time."

The report also said that if all towns were made to meet nutrients standards immediately, "the costs might be too high and/or the technology might not be currently available."

The nutrient standards are designed to prevent algae growth, which stifles aquatic life and at extremely high levels can create oxygen-starved "dead zones."

The standards grew out of the federal Clean Water Act, passed by Congress in the late 1970s. It was not until 1998 that the EPA published its national "nutrient criteria strategy," and shortly after that the DEQ began developing nutrient standards for Montana waterways.

Although numeric standards have not been developed yet for the Yellowstone River, into which the city's plant discharges treated water, they are likely to be similar to those adopted for "wadable streams."

Under those standards, water discharged into those streams eventually could contain no more than 0.3 milligrams of nitrogen per liter and 0.03 milligrams of phosphorous.

By way of comparison, the city is already well into a $60 million upgrade of its wastewater treatment plant. By 2016, those improvements should make it possible for the city to discharge water containing 10 milligrams of nitrogen per liter and 1 milligram of phosphorous.

That's a long way from 0.3 and 0.03 milligrams, and why Mumford said it would cost the city an estimated $300 million to meet the stringent standards.

But there are other ways to achieve the new standards, one of which is to reduce the amount of waste that needs to be treated.

At the relatively new Rehberg Ranch Estates west of the Billings Logan International Airport, the developer created a "package plant" sewage treatment system, making it the only subdivision in Billings to have one, according to Mumford.

The plant, located north of the subdivision, has two settling lagoons and a small building where the lagoon water is run through ultraviolet treatment before being piped to a nearby reservoir.

Then, rather than discharging water from the reservoir into a waterway, it is used to irrigate pasture land.

Mathieus said the DEQ also has the authority to approve the use of treated water for dust abatement and fire suppression as alternatives to traditional discharge.

Public treatment plants and private companies are also working on ways to clean up wastewater with new technologies or microbial treatment.

"The DEQ encourages innovation," Methieus said. "Our belief is that there's multiple ways that we can deal with wastewater discharge that doesn't necessarily have to be the traditional way of discharging into the river." 

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