The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has approved Montana's plan to phase in strict limits on water pollution from municipal wastewater treatment plants, industry and other sources, officials said Monday.
Montana Department of Environmental Quality Director Richard Opper said that under the state plan, most major polluters still would have to make changes to meet Montana's flexible standard for two pollutants - nitrogen and phosphorus.
But the approved plan includes variances for cities and companies that would allow them to meet the new federal standards over two decades. That means polluters could avoid huge costs they otherwise would have faced to upgrade pollution control equipment more immediately.
Nitrogen and phosphorus are naturally-occurring elements that water plants need to survive. But at high concentrations the two nutrients cause algae blooms that suck oxygen from the water as the algae decomposes, killing fish and other water life.
The Environmental Protection Agency last year raised concerns about the state's phased-in approach because it does not require individual polluters to prove economic harm before they are given more time to meet federal standards.
But the federal agency backed down after the state in recent months presented studies that said the cost of meeting the standard would be significant. Although precise costs were not provided, some municipalities have said they would be forced to spend tens of millions of dollars to meet the federal rules using current technologies.
"After careful review ... the EPA concludes that the issuance of the variances would be consistent with the Clean Water Act and its implementing regulations," EPA regional administrator James Martin wrote in a recent letter to Opper.
The phased-in approach was authorized in by the Montana Legislature last year.
Under that legislation, the state would revisit its requirements for polluters every three years and adjust them as more cost-effective and efficient water treatment technologies emerged.
"It's not a get out of jail free card by any stretch. It buys some time for technologies to mature," Opper said Monday. Currently, he added, "the only kind of technology that would stand a chance of meeting the standard at this point was too expensive."
The EPA's approval got a cold reception from Jim Jensen with the Montana Environmental Information Center. Jensen, who participated in a state-appointed nutrient working group that was set up to address the issue, said the group put too much emphasis on treating fouled water rather than keeping it clean in the first place.
"From the beginning, the committee's objective has been to figure out how to allow pollution rather than how to prevent it," Jensen said. "This just puts it off to another day. When streams are already flowing at lower flows in the summer, this is not the time to be issuing variance or adopting schemes to allow pollution to continue."
But John Rundquist, public works director in the City of Helena, said the federal standards for nitrogen and phosphorus threatened to "bust the bank" of municipalities that would have to buy expensive pollution control equipment.
And that still would have not solved the water quality problem, Rundquist said, because it would leave unaddressed smaller but more numerous pollution sources such as leaking septic tanks and runoff from farms that use nutrient-based fertilizers.
The state's plan to control nutrient pollution will next go before the Board of Environmental Review, for adoption possibly sometime this coming summer or fall, said DEQ spokeswoman Lisa Peterson. After that, the DEQ will issue a formal rule setting the nutrient standard and allowing the variances, Peterson said.