Judge orders DEQ to reconsider discharge permit for Big Sky subdivision |

A district court has ruled in favor of environmental groups seeking a review of a water discharge permit near the Gallatin River.

Upper Missouri Waterkeeper and the Montana Environmental Information Center last year sued the Montana Department of Environmental Quality for extending a water pollution control system permit for the Lazy J South subdivision in Big Sky.

Judge Peter Ohman issued an order Monday to side with the environmental groups.

The order required DEQ to conduct a new assessment of the permit to fully meet the criteria set out in state law. These criteria required the agency to determine whether the permit would cause “non-significant changes” to existing water quality and whether there were “cumulative effects.”

If the first criterion was met, DEQ had the discretion not to further review the permit against the second criterion set out in the law. DEQ has done so, but the court order means the agency must now examine the cumulative impacts in a new environmental analysis.

Moira Davin, a spokeswoman for the state agency, said in an email that DEQ was still reviewing the order and had no comment.

The lawsuit alleged that DEQ’s extension of the permit was illegal because the agency failed to account for the cumulative impact of another source of wastewater discharge into a river that was “already overburdened with nutrient pollution.”

Guy Alsentzer, executive director of Upper Missouri Waterkeeper, said the organization was encouraged by the ruling but the most important thing is a thorough assessment of the pollution’s impact on local waterways.

“It was always the problem that it was death by a thousand cuts,” said Alsentzer.

The Lazy J South subdivision is still under construction. It has 70 lots that represent a mix of residential and commercial. The permit approved discharges from the subdivision’s treatment plant, which was designed to remove up to 60% of the nitrogen in the effluent.

Michener Creek and the Gallatin River are near the watershed — the Gallatin is about 1,800 feet away, according to court documents.

According to court documents, under certain circumstances defined by state law, DEQ can permit the degradation of quality bodies of water, such as the Gallatin River.

The agency’s review process determined that the effluent from the subdivision required no further review for deterioration because it did not act as a “new or elevated source.”

This summer, DEQ made an interim decision classifying the Gallatin River as “affected” by algal blooms due to a nutrient imbalance in the river.

The court found that DEQ had not “satisfactorily verified” the criteria set out in state law relating to the degradation of quality water sources and the permit.

Derf Johnson, deputy director of the Montana Environmental Information Center, said the order means the DEQ is required to investigate all of the various discharges along the waterways.

And how these discharges combined could affect waterways.

“In a way, it’s good for the Gallatin River,” Johnson said. “But our hope and intention is that this particular judgment will be made (and) widely applied by DEQ.”