Environment Montana
The Missoulian
Skye Borden

Here in Missoula, the Clark Fork River is the lifeblood of our community. Even when we are not fishing or floating, or drawing its water through our taps for drinking, the river courses through our neighborhoods and binds us together. And with the Clark Fork, we see wildlife flourishing in our midst. The same is true for waterways in cities and towns across Montana.

Unfortunately, new data shows that industrial polluters are still dumping chemicals into Montana waterways, and no one is holding them accountable. Moreover, officials in Washington, D.C., are now considering rollbacks and budget cuts that would make this situation even worse.

In reviewing Clean Water Act compliance data from January 2016 to September 2017, we found that industrial facilities dumped excessive pollution into Montana’s waterways 62 times.

When the Clean Water Act was passed 45 years ago, Congress declared that all of our waterways would be clean by 1983 and that all direct discharge of pollutants would cease by 1985. Decades later, 40 percent of our rivers, lakes and streams are still polluted. And instead of ratcheting pollution down to zero, many industries are still dumping chemicals into our waters beyond legal limits set to protect health and the environment.

A prime example of this pattern of pollution is the Western Energy’s Rosebud Mine, which discharged iron and sediment into several streams around Colstrip. In three incidents last year, the mine’s pollution grossly exceeded its permitted amount by 3,500 percent, 7,000 percent and a whopping 19,500 percent. For these releases, the company received a single warning letter from Montana Department of Environmental Quality in November; the mine was not fined.

In light of this situation, government officials should be redoubling their efforts to protect and restore Montana’s waters. Here in the 21st century, we know how to produce things in our economy without dumping chemicals into our rivers. But a core premise of the Clean Water Act is that such change rarely happens on its own; it will take robust enforcement of our clean water laws — including tough penalties, so it no longer pays to pollute.

Instead, the current administration is pushing policy changes that will make it even harder to enforce the Clean Water Act and has proposed slashing the Environmental Protection Agency’s enforcement program by more than $30 million. In particular, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt is trying to repeal the Clean Water Rule, which restored protections to wetlands and to streams that help provide drinking water for 230,000 folks across the state.

Apparently, even Pruitt knows this rollback is on shaky legal ground. As Congress faces a March 23 deadline to keep the government open, the Republican spending bill contains a provision that would exempt the repeal of the Clean Water Rule from all federal law.

It’s time for Montanans to speak up and tell our officials that we need clean water now.