Department of Environmental Quality DEQ
Credit: Eliza Wiley / MTFP

The unintentional discharge of more than 3 million gallons of partially treated wastewater into Warm Springs Creek has prompted the state to pause the overhaul of Montana State Hospital’s wastewater treatment plant.

The Montana Department of Environmental Quality announced today that the state has issued a stop-work order for Missouri River Contractors after the agency determined that the company had violated its permit and taken “insufficient corrective actions” to remedy the source of the wastewater discharge.

The onsite project engineer who designed the plant upgrade that Missouri River Contractors had been working on alerted the DEQ about a potential discharge of partially treated wastewater on June 23. Sampling by the department and communications with the engineer and the contractor led the DEQ and the Department of Administration’s Architecture and Engineering Division to halt the project on July 18, citing the contractor’s lack of compliance with conditions outlined in its permit.

More specifically, the state says Missouri River Contractors exceeded permit limits for measured pH and total suspended solids (typically sand, silt and organic material such as bacteria or algae).

DEQ said in a Friday release about the stop-work order that the discharge has been stopped and there are no short-term human health effects anticipated or known risks to water quality. The 3 million gallon estimate came from a self-report letter Missouri River Contractors issued to the DEQ, according to the department’s public policy director, Rebecca Harbage.

According to the letter Missouri River Contractors’ Vice President Nick Miller submitted to the DEQ on June 23, the new plant went online on May 19 and the discharge issue arose when the company started decommissioning old wastewater ponds. The plant operator produced calculations indicating that the discharge occurred over an eight-day period in June, resulting in an estimated release of 3,071,598 gallons of partially treated wastewater.

In the process of decommissioning the ponds, Missouri River Contractors failed to prevent partially treated wastewater from issuing out of pond drains, Harbage said.

“It looks like what happened was they thought they had blocked the discharge drains as they were moving wastewater around, but in fact the blockage didn’t take or hold the way they expected it to,” Harbage said.

Harbage said it’s difficult to assess the level of treatment the leaked wastewater had received before entering Warm Springs Creek, a tributary of the Clark Fork. 

DEQ’s participation in a stop-work order is somewhat unusual, Harbage said, noting that the project is relatively unique in that it involved work on a state-owned facility.

Administrators in DEQ’s enforcement and water quality branches will be coordinating in the weeks ahead to discuss corrective actions, which could include a fine, Harbage said.

“The main takeaway from our perspective is it’s lucky this time that it wasn’t worse than it was,” Harbage said. “We’re emphasizing that contractors, no matter who they’re working for, take the permit requirements seriously.”


Amanda Eggert studied print journalism at the University of Montana. Prior to becoming a full-time journalist, Amanda spent four years working with the Forest Service as a wildland firefighter. After leaving the Forest Service in 2014, Amanda worked for Outside magazine as an editorial fellow before joining Outlaw Partners’ staff to lead coverage for Explore Big Sky newspaper and contribute writing and editing to Explore Yellowstone and Mountain Outlaw magazines. Prior to joining Montana Free Press’ staff in 2021 Amanda was a freelance writer, researcher and interviewer. In addition to writing...