Environment Montana Research & Policy Center
Billings Gazette
Mike Ferguson

A report issued Thursday by environmental watchdog groups says that Western Sugar Cooperative in Billings exceeded its permitted limit for releases into the Yellowstone River 56 times during a 21-month period. The materials included ammonia nitrogen, E. coli and fecal coliform.

Ammonia nitrogen, a toxic pollutant, is found in landfill leachate and waste products. E. coli is a bacteria that lives in human and animal intestines. Fecal coliform found in an aquatic environment indicates the water has been contaminated with the fecal material of humans or animals.

Environment Montana and Frontier Group’s report, “Troubled Waters,” details 8,100 instances nationwide of industrial firms releasing pollution into waterways, exceeding the levels allowed under their Clean Water Act permits.

Western Sugar Cooperative did not immediately return telephone and email messages seeking comment on the report.

“We think all Montanans deserve clean water,” said Skye Borden, Environment Montana director, speaking at a news conference in Coulson Park on Thursday along with Adelle Coombs of Mom’s Clean Air Force and accompanied by Coombs’ daughter, Lydia. “We think one of your companies isn’t playing by the rules.”

The report looks at exceedances across the country from January 2016 through September 2017. Of Western Sugar Cooperative’s 56 exceedances, 21 were 500 percent or more of its permitted level.

The Environmental Protection Agency “is aware of the problem,” Borden said, having sent Western Sugar Cooperative about 35 informal warnings — none of which included a fine.

“That’s our main concern — the health of the environment for our families,” Coombs said. “We have a big concern that companies should be regulated and that the EPA is fully funded to watch over them.”

Western Sugar Cooperative has a number of lagoons near its refinery, at 3020 State Ave. It could be that those lagoons are over-topping, Borden said.

Western Sugar Coopertative’s Scotts Bluff, Nebraska site had even more exceedances into the North Platte River, the report indicates — 67, including 25 that were over the 500 percent or higher threshold.

For Borden, clean water, land and air is a personal fight. Just after her son Roan’s first birthday, he was hospitalized for a month after contracting a salmonella infection from the family farm. The boy almost died. In pictures Borden has of her now 3-year-old son learning to walk, he’s plodding along with an IV stuck into his arm.

“That was an incredibly difficult time for us,” she said. “We were among the lucky ones. We got to take our son home from the hospital.”

The report also shows the Lockwood ExxonMobil refinery exceeded its limit twice, for biochemical oxygen demand and sulfide. “We don’t want to minimize those,” Borden said, “but we categorize them as accidents.”

Dan Carter, director of public and government affairs for ExxonMobil's Billings refinery, said the two occurrences were due to a 2016 refinery-wide power outage and an operational upset combined with heavy rain the next year.

"In both cases," he wrote in an email, "the refinery reported the permit exceedances to state regulators, mitigated the impacts and was quickly back in compliance.

"The ExxonMobil Billings refinery is completely committed to environmental performance excellence," Carter wrote. "Our goal is to drive operational incidences with environmental impact to zero."

According to the report, about 40 percent of the nation’s major industrial facilities — more than 1,100 sites — reported exceeding their pollution limits at least once.

Borden noted that in its 2018-19 budget proposal, the Trump Administration proposes lowering by $30 million funding for monitoring and enforcing the Clean Water Act, passed by Congress and signed by President Richard M. Nixon in 1972.