Lawsuit: EPA fails to protect Montana rivers from pollution

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FILE - The Yellowstone River is seen May 8, 2020, as it flows past Mystic Park in Billings, Mont. The Upper Missouri Waterkeeper group says new rules proposed by the Montana Department of Environmental Quality will let more nutrient pollution into the state's streams, rivers and other waterways. (AP Photo/Matthew Brown,File)

BILLINGS, Mont. – A conservation group has filed a lawsuit against U.S. environmental officials for alleged failure to intervene after the Montana Legislature rolled back longstanding water pollution rules.

The Bozeman-based Upper Missouri Waterkeeper group said a set of replacement rules proposed by the Montana Department of Environmental Quality will allow more nutrient pollution to enter streams, rivers and other waterways across the state.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has oversight of the state’s pollution rules and is required to approve or reject the changes but has failed to do so, according to the lawsuit filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in Great Falls.

Nutrient pollution comes from farm fertilizer, industrial plants, treated sewage waste, pet waste and numerous other sources. It can be harmful to fish and human health by encouraging the growth of algae blooms that are sometimes toxic.

Montana has almost 60,000 miles (97,000 kilometers) of perennial rivers and streams, including major rivers such as the Missouri that drains into North Dakota and the Clark Fork of the Columbia that drains into Idaho.

Water quality for about a third of Montana's river mileage has been assessed for pollution and most of it was found to be impaired, or harmed by pollution, to at least some degree, according to federal and state agencies.

Montana's Republican-dominated Legislature last year repealed longstanding rules that dictated specific water pollution limits, also known as numeric standards. Those limits are being replaced with “narrative” standards that describe what conditions should be present for a waterbody that's free of pollution.

A broad framework for the new rules was released earlier this month and more details are due later this year.

State officials have said the rules would protect rivers and streams that are vital to the state’s tourism and recreation industries, while creating flexibility in how nutrients get reduced by polluters.

They have rejected concerns that the rules would degrade waterways.

EPA spokesperson Richard Mylott said the agency had no comment on the litigation against the agency.