Yellowstone settles arsenic lawsuit with Park County

Story by: Michael Wright, Bozeman Daily Chronicle.

The federal government will pay $1 million to the Gardiner-Park County Water and Sewer District to settle a lawsuit the district filed over high levels of arsenic coming into its system from Yellowstone National Park.

The settlement agreement brings an end to the lawsuit the district filed in U.S. District Court in 2018 alleging that poor pipe maintenance resulted in high levels of arsenic getting into the district’s sewage ponds. Having arsenic in the ponds makes cleaning sludge out of the ponds more expensive and complicated.

After more than a year-and-a-half of legal wrangling and settlement talks, the two sides signed an agreement in February that the government would pay the district $1 million. Judge Susan P. Waters signed an order dismissing the case because of the settlement in mid-March.

A payment to the sewer district for the town at the park’s northern gate has already been made. Todd Shea, the attorney who represented the district, declined to comment.

Yellowstone National Park spokeswoman Linda Veress said in an email Friday morning that the money will pay for rehabilitating the district’s septic system “after years of naturally-occurring arsenic flowed out of Yellowstone National Park and caused deposits in Gardiner’s sewer lines and holding pond.”

“The park is pleased to have resolved this matter with the neighboring community of Gardiner,” Veress wrote.

Yellowstone has used the Gardiner-Park County Water and Sewer District’s sewage treatment plant for many years, according to court documents. The district uses sludge ponds to treat wastewater, and the ponds have to be emptied periodically.

High arsenic levels change where the sludge can be dumped, affecting the cost of removing it. The cost of emptying the ponds was estimated at more than $2 million in March 2015.

An engineer at the district told the district in 2015 that high levels of arsenic coming from the park were getting into the sewage treatment facility.

The lawsuit says the arsenic wasn’t coming directly from the park’s wastewater but likely from a different source, like leaky pipes or manholes inside the park. The district’s engineer recommended dealing with the arsenic infiltration problem before removing any of the sludge.

The district sent multiple letters to park officials in 2015 and 2016 seeking some resolution to the arsenic problem but received no written response until fall 2016, according to the lawsuit.

In separate discussions with the agency, however, park officials acknowledged the high levels of arsenic were coming from the park and said the National Park Service would help pay for sludge removal.

In a September 2016 letter, the park acknowledged the problems with its pipes but said it likely wouldn’t have money available to pay for the repairs until this year. The letter also acknowledged the agency was responsible for the sludge removal costs but didn’t say when that money would be available.

The park pledged to replace the sewer line in 2017, and a park spokeswoman said at the time that the money for the project was available.

Yellowstone National Park, Gardiner to address arsenic in sewage

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.