By Joseph T. O’Connor and Amanda Eggert, Explore Big Sky
On Thursday afternoon, effluent began pouring down an embankment from a Yellowstone Club wastewater storage pond and into a tributary of the Gallatin River. A mechanical issue from a broken pipe is associated with the cause, according to Kristi Ponozzo, public policy director with the Montana Department of Environmental Quality.
Calls to the Yellowstone Club have not been immediately returned.
Montana DEQ is heading up assessment efforts.
State DEQ agents, including the state DEQ Director Tom Livers, are en route to Big Sky and are expected to arrive this afternoon, according to Ponozzo.
“We don’t have a lot of specific information on what happened,” Ponozzo said. “But from what we heard from the Yellowstone Club, [the spill originated with] a mechanical issue from a broken pipe.”
According to Ponozzo, the largest concern is the amount of sediment stirred up from the approximately 35 million gallons of effluent that has drained into the South Fork of the West Fork of the Gallatin River in less than 24 hours.
“The ponds are likely almost drained at this point,” Ponozzo said in a Friday morning interview. She added that the Yellowstone Club said employees worked through the night and “made efforts to do what they could do.”
The DEQ will be testing the Gallatin River for pathogens, hydrogen, phosphorus, suspended sediment, ammonia, and nitrogen, Ponozzo said, and will be assisted by various state and county groups including Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks; the Department of Health and Human Services; Gallatin County; the Yellowstone Club; and potentially the Gallatin River Task Force.
“The biggest issue we see right now is sediment. The release is picking up a significant sediment load and sediment impacts aquatic life,” Ponozzo said. “That’s the main point of concern.”
At 9:30 a.m. Friday, Kristin Gardner, executive director of the Gallatin River Task Force provided comment on the spill.
Gardner is collecting data this morning and through the weekend with Yellowstone Club and Confluence Consulting, a natural resource consulting service based in Bozeman.
They’ll be measuring phosphorous, nitrogen, chloride and ph levels as well as gauging turbidity and monitoring for E. coli at several sites along the Gallatin watershed including the Second Yellow Mule Creek, the South Fork of the West Fork of the Gallatin, the West Fork of the Gallatin, and the Gallatin.
Gardner said she can’t comment on the impact until the data has come back, but noted there’s no danger to public health and it’s essentially the same quality of tertiary treated effluent that Bozeman discharges into the Gallatin on a regular basis.
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Other conservation organizations are more concerned about the short- and long-term impacts of the spill. “[This] is just a tragic situation,” said Guy Alsentzer, the Executive Director and Founder of Upper Missouri Waterkeeper. “My organization and my members are pretty fired up about it.”
Thursday night, Upper Missouri Waterkeeper, a nonprofit focused on protecting and improving waterways throughout Montana’s Upper Missouri River Basin, collected samples and sent them to Bridger Analytics, a Four Corners lab. Alsentzer said the results should be in by Saturday morning and he is eager to learn whether or not the wastewater was fully treated.
“I think we’re going to find high nutrient – nitrogen and phosphorous – levels. I’m concerned that we’re going to find very low concentration of [dissolved or available] oxygen levels, which are critical to fish and bug health.”
A DEQ press release received by EBS Thursday evening stated that the water is treated “and the expected total nitrogen content of about 7-8 mg/L is below the human health standard of 10 mg/L as nitrate.” The release also noted that the effluent is authorized to irrigate the Yellowstone Club golf course during the summer months.
The press release stated that the water is treated “and the expected total nitrogen content of about 7-8 mg/L is below the human health standard of 10 mg/L as nitrate.”
Gallatin County Emergency Management notified the Big Sky Fire Department of the situation at 3:30 p.m. Thursday afternoon. State agencies were looking for on-site photographs so they could better understand what was going on, according to BSFD Chief Bill Farhat, who added that DEQ is the agency in charge of the situation.
“As soon as I was assured there was no public health hazard, that was the end of my involvement,” Farhat said. “It was limited involvement on our part until state agencies arrive.”
See a video from Ousel Falls this afternoon here: Ousel_effluent_video
At approximately 8:30 p.m. Thursday, the Yellowstone Club released the following statement:
On March 3, a Yellowstone Club employee identified damage to a treated reclaim water irrigation main. We moved swiftly to address the incident as soon as it was known, contacting Big Sky Sewer District and environmental authorities including the Montana Department of Environmental Quality. Local authorities confirmed that there is a flow of the reclaimed water into surrounding area streams and ultimately the Second Yellow Mule Creek and the Gallatin River.
The water that is influencing the Second Yellow Mule drainage from the broken pipe is picking up sediment due to overland flow and the steep land topography causing soil turbidity in the connecting waterways. The water is treated to a high level and not a risk to human contact. Furthermore there are no potable inlets for consumption along these waterways.
Yellowstone Club knows it is our responsibility to ensure as little harm as possible to the environment and we must do all we can to mitigate this issue. Crews from Bozeman are working through the night assembling parts and equipment to remedy the situation. It is estimated that the active spill will be contained within 24 hours. Yellowstone Club wants to assure the community we take this issue very seriously and we are taking steps to minimize this impact and prevent any further issues.
The Explore Big Sky newspaper covers life and land from the heart of the Yellowstone Region. Visit ExploreBigSky.com for more information.