Written by: Brett French, Billings Gazette
Three years after filing suit against Yellowstone National Park and four years after a problem was first identified, a settlement conference has been set for May 9 between the park and the Gardiner-Park County Water and Sewer District over excessive levels of arsenic in the Gardiner sewage ponds.
“It looks like we have made some headway,” said Todd Shea, a Bozeman attorney representing the sewer district.
The sewer district sued in 2016 saying the park had not been responsive to requests to address the issue. The problem has been identified as either a leak into the pipes that deliver wastewater from Mammoth Hot Springs, Wyoming — the headquarters for the park’s staff — or manholes that are allowing arsenic-laden runoff into the system. Tests of the wastewater showed the arsenic levels coming from the park were 40 times higher than water from Gardiner’s wastewater system.
Mammoth does not have its own wastewater treatment facility. Tests performed on the drinking water at Mammoth ruled out that as the source of heavy arsenic.
Arsenic is a naturally occurring element found in rocks and soil and is prevalent in the water coming from Yellowstone’s thermal hot pools and geysers. If ingested in large enough quantities, arsenic can cause a variety of ailments in humans affecting organs as diverse as the heart and liver, lungs and nervous system.
U.S. drinking water is permitted to contain up to 10 parts per billion of arsenic, according to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. Some states have stricter standards, but Montana adheres to the federal level.
Tests by the Montana Department of Environmental Quality in 2015 showed high arsenic levels in rivers that drain from Yellowstone National Park into Montana, including 367 ppb in the Firehole, 197 ppb in the Gibbon and 300 ppb in the Yellowstone River.
In 2015 the Montana Department of Environmental Quality advised the Gardiner Water and Sewer district that sludge should be removed from its treatment ponds and new liners installed. But undertaking that task made no sense if the arsenic problem was not addressed.
After twice advising Yellowstone officials of the problem by letter with no response, the complaint said the park’s staff finally acknowledged its role for the issue during a meeting and agreed to help fund the sludge removal from the wastewater ponds, a project estimated to cost about $2 million.
More than a year and a half after first mailing the park’s staff for specifics on how it would help, the Gardiner Water and Sewer District was told by park officials that the agency would not be able to address the problem until 2020 due to a lack of funding, according to the complaint. That’s when the district sued.
Since that lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in 2016, the sewer district amended its complaint last year and then both parties sought a suspension of the proceedings which Judge Timothy Cavan denied in November. He also ordered the park to respond to the amended complaint by Dec. 22.
That was the same day that the government shutdown began, the longest in U.S. history and stretching to Jan. 25.
Just two days before the shutdown, a settlement conference between the sewer district and park was approved by the court in an attempt to keep the case from going to trial. The settlement talks will be overseen by U.S. Magistrate Judge Jeremiah Lynch. Magistrate judges assist district courts.
The first conference was set during the government shutdown, so another was scheduled for May 9 before Lynch in Billings at 9 a.m.