Water quality standards in Montana will be lower than anywhere in the country if the Montana Legislature adopts House Bill 352, according to the Missoula City-County Health Department.
Department director Ellen Leahy said the bill, which sailed through the House on a vote of 84 to 15 and heads to the Senate, would foul up water quality standards throughout the state. It even might endanger drink orders at the bar.
"I really think that if this goes through, the next time you order a whiskey ditch in Montana, you just might get one," Leahy said.
The bill description says it would allow "the use of bottled water for a public water system to achieve compliance with a maximum contaminant level for nitrate." Rep. Ryan Osmundson, a Buffalo Republican named as the primary sponsor of the legislation, did not return voicemails for comment.
In Missoula, though, Leahy and other public health officials are calling it the "bottled water bill." It would allow cafes and bars with water quality violations for nitrates to serve bottled water instead of clean the source of contamination.
"It also doesn't give a ceiling," Leahy said. "If you violate the nitrates standard, it doesn't say how badly you could violate the nitrates standard."
If nitrate levels are too high, they can cause "a potentially fatal blood disorder in infants under six months of age ... in which there is a reduction in the oxygen-carrying capacity of blood," reads an excerpt on nitrates on a Washington state public health website. The disorder is known as "blue baby syndrome."
The bill also applies broadly - to entire water systems. Mountain Water opposes it.
"There's absolutely no way that we would ever take advantage of the provisions of the bill," said Mountain Water manager of risk and legal services Ross Miller. "There's no way that we would keep running a well that didn't meet all the water quality standards and that we would run that water in our pipes. It would be irresponsible to our customers and it would be an unacceptable risk."
The bill allows the Montana Department of Environmental Quality to grant a variance for as many as five years to a violator as long as warning signs are posted that say water isn't potable. Bottled water can be served instead.
The bill came about because a cafe in Hobson called Gramma Ruby's has had water quality violations for years, Leahy said. The most recent violations were last November for nitrate and coliform standards, according to the Public Water Supply link. The cafe, which could not be reached Friday for comment, met compliance standards for coliform.
Find water quality report cards for Gramma Ruby's and other places here. Click on the name of any establishment and set start dates back 10 years.
"It's not unusual to see a record of some contamination, but what you see is it's fixed," Leahy said of establishments in general. "The public is notified, and on we go."
But the bill would let problems languish. Even if it means people are drinking clean - bottled - water, it doesn't take care of other things that happen in restaurants and bars, Leahy said. There's ice cubes, dish washing and coffee making. And she said the bill takes away the DEQ's leverage to enforce even simple fixes, like installing filters that improve water quality.
She said she isn't suggesting the Health Department would support a bill that covers just smaller commercial establishments and exempts public water systems, but such a change would be an improvement. An earlier version of the bill allowed a variance for places that had coliform violations.
As it stands, Leahy and Miller said the public are at risk.
High levels of nitrates don't generally occur naturally in western Montana, so they often mean water ran through a septic system, Leahy said. But she also said the general public shouldn't need to understand nitrate levels in order to drink water - or order a Coke with ice cubes.
"I think that's a real problem. We expect that our water is drinkable for everyone," Leahy said.
And Miller said nitrates often indicate other contaminants - ones Missoula doesn't want in its aquifer.
The other problem, he said, is the bill risks turning over Montana's water quality reins to the federal government instead of the DEQ: "It's to the state's advantage to maintain its primacy. And anytime the state weakens its regulations, you're at risk of granting primacy back to the feds, and I think that's just bad for Montana."
Reporter Keila Szpaller can be reached at 523-5262 or at email@example.com