Thanks to a series of studies conducted in Montana’s major river valleys, we now know beyond a doubt that a host of contaminants are not being treated by either septic systems or municipal sewage treatment plants. Yet, although these “contaminants of concern” are known and acknowledged by the Bullock administration’s Department of Environmental Quality, the agency has decided to ignore those contaminants as it re-issues municipal discharge permits statewide.

The studies of groundwater in the Gallatin, Helena, Missoula and Flathead valleys found a number of contaminants that are increasingly affecting domestic and commercial wells and showing up in our drinking and cooking water as well as aquatic environments. Those contaminants include a host of pharmaceuticals, herbicides, pesticides, hormone disrupters, artificial hormones and insect repellants, among the two dozen or more substances found at detectable levels.

The Helena Valley study titled, “Helena Valley Ground Water: Pharmaceuticals, Personal Care Products, Endocrine Disruptors (PPCPs) and Microbial Indicators of Fecal Contamination” was written by Kathleen (Kate) J. Miller and Joseph Meek, both of the Montana Department of Environmental Quality.

Their concerns about potential impacts to human and aquatic health were echoed in a recently-published article in Environmental Health News by Brian Bienkowski. Importantly, the article contains this succinct statement of the problem in a U.S. Geological Survey study of non-controlled pollutants in treatment plant and septic system effluent:

“Barber, a research geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, was looking for, and found, hormone-disrupting compounds – called alkylphenols - making it through wastewater treatment plants and contaminating rivers and fish in the Great Lakes and Upper Mississippi River regions.

“The compounds pervade the Great Lakes basin waterways that receive wastewater treatment plant effluent. 'It doesn’t matter if it’s a large urban wastewater plant, a mid-size city wastewater plant or individual septic tanks,' Barber said. 'These chemicals are present.' Wastewater treatment plants were not originally designed to handle these compounds, widely used both commercially and residentially in products such as detergents, cleaning products and adhesives. Operators are scrambling to keep up with the hormone-mimickers gushing into their plants."

When the public notice of DEQ’s intention to re-issue discharge permits for the city of Kalispell, city of Whitefish and the Gardner Park County Water and Sewage District came out, it seemed like a good time to raise the issue with the department, since none of the proposed permits contained even a mention of these known contaminants.

Again quoting from the article: "Meanwhile, scientists fear the biologically active contaminants and their metabolites may alter the hormones of fish and other aquatic creatures, leading to reproductive, behavioral and developmental problems.”

So what do these known contaminants do? Again quoting from the article: “Alkyphenols disrupt endocrine systems, acting estrogenic in fish, birds and mammals…estrogens are important to the brain, metabolism, cardiovascular health.”

The Environmental Protection Agency openly acknowledged that “none of the actual results are particularly remarkable or unexpected based on past studies of this type with alkylphenols,” yet the federal agency does not have discharge standards for these known contaminants.

But unlike the U.S. Constitution, Montana’s Constitution has a mandate in Article IX, Sec. 1 that “the state and each person shall maintain and improve a clean and healthful environment in Montana for present and future generations,” which is being ignored by DEQ while equally ignoring Sec. 3, which requires “…protection of the environmental life support system from degradation and provide adequate remedies to prevent unreasonable depletion and degradation of natural resources.”

Yet, in its decision notice, DEQ wrote: “DEQ agrees there are many emerging contaminants of concern. As you noted in your comments, our staff has been actively involved in research to identify potential contaminants to State Waters and we are working to address emerging issues. However, DEQ cannot delay permit updates for each emerging issue. Such delays would leave communities operating under progressively older discharge requirements. Only with regular permit updates, like the current action, will the facilities be brought up to new standards developed to address new scientific knowledge.”

The data is in and even the EPA admits the results are conclusive. Yet Montana’s DEQ continues to permit municipal wastewater discharges that are slowly but surely poisoning state waters. It’s time for Governor Bullock to get the Department of Environmental Quality to live up to its name – and constitutional mandates – and take concrete steps to protect Montanans from municipal wastewater discharges that continue to pollute our precious groundwater, rivers, lakes and the ecosystems upon which all life, including we humans, relies.

George Ochenski's column appears each Monday on the Missoulian's Opinion page. Contact him at

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