No risk to human health expected following March wastewater spill

By Amanda Eggert EBS Staff Writer

BIG SKY – According to an April 25 report released by the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, a total of 18 pharmaceutical chemicals were detected in the water flowing from the Yellowstone Club wastewater pond that failed in early March, sending 30 million gallons of treated effluent into the Gallatin River watershed.

Seven pharmaceuticals were detected in the effluent flowing directly from the pond but not in Second Yellow Mule and other downstream tributaries. The report said this is likely due to absorption of some pharmaceuticals by sediment and dilution.

Eleven pharmaceuticals were detected in tributaries of the Gallatin impacted by the effluent. This included four antibiotics, a cardiac drug, an anticonvulsant and mood stabilizer, two stimulants, an anti-fungicide and parasiticide, a veterinarian drug, and a non-prescription analgesic.

Currently, no federal water quality criteria regulates the presence of pharmaceuticals in waterways, according to the report, and Montana has not adopted such standards either. In order to compare the data collected against a measurable standard, DEQ looked to the pharmaceutical water quality standards enforced in Minnesota.

“None of Minnesota’s values were exceeded; therefore, human health effects from any individual chemical tested in this study are unlikely,” the report said. “This does not rule out human health effects from chemicals not analyzed for or combined effects of chemicals or metabolites.”

DEQ’s Public Policy Director Kristi Ponozzo said the report was intended to educate the public. “There’s little mitigation that we can do at this point,” she said.

Without benchmarks for pharmaceuticals in Montana waterways, the DEQ’s hands are tied.“We don’t have a lot of options for enforcement,” Ponozzo said. “There are no standards.”

Four pharmaceutical chemicals were highlighted in the 11-page report: azithromycin, sulfamethoxazole, carbadox and carbamazepine.

At 22 percent of the human- health benchmark established by Minnesota, azithromycin, a common antibiotic often referred to by its commercial name Z-pak, came closest to meeting the Minnesota standard. The benchmark used identifies a “concentration of an active pharmaceutical ingredient that can be consumed daily with no anticipated health risk to humans.” Azithromycin was detected in the water directly spilling from the pond, but not in the tributaries affected by the spill.

Since the wastewater pond is not considered a state water, it’s not subject to laws governed by the Montana Water Quality Act or the national Clean Water Act. Both of these laws, however, govern the Gallatin and its tributaries.

Sulfamethoxazole, also an antibiotic, is the most widespread pharmaceutical detected in U.S. urban-influenced rivers and streams. DEQ’s report found that it was detected at all of the sites studied – even a “background” site upstream of the spill.

Carbadox, a veterinary medicine, was detected at the pond site and at two downstream locations in low levels. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Veterinary Medicine is currently taking legal action against the manufacturer to remove carbadox from the market due to concerns about its safety.

The report also paid special attention to carbamezepine, an anticonvulsant and mood stabilizer that’s been shown to affect aquatic invertebrates at lower concentrations than those the DEQ measured in their sampling.

The impacts of pharmaceuticals on fish and other aquatic life – even in low concentrations – might be significant, but has not been widely studied. Additional research is needed, according to the report.

“If you are concerned about contaminants, including pharmaceuticals in your drinking water, many inexpensive filters purchased in the store for the refrigerator or for the tap will filter out a large portion of pharmaceuticals,” the report said.

The DEQ’s enforcement action against the Yellowstone Club is underway, although fines have yet to be levied. A letter dated April 13 from the DEQ to Mike DuCuennois, the Yellowstone Club’s vice president of development, outlines the Montana Water Quality Act laws the Yellowstone Club violated.

Those laws include the pollution of Montana waterways and the discharge of waste into state waters without a permit. Two standards were exceeded – one for ammonia and another for turbidity, which relates to suspended sediment in the waterway.

In the letter, Shasta Steinweden, a DEQ environmental enforcement specialist, asked DuCuennois to submit a mitigation plan to the agency by May 31 to address the erosion trough and sediment deposits created by the spill.

An earlier DEQ report about the spill’s impact on aquatic life recommended that the Yellowstone Club conduct studies of the fisheries affected for at least three years.

Both reports can be found on the DEQ’s website at