By Joseph T. O’Connor EBS Managing Editor and Amanda Eggert EBS Staff Writer
UPDATED – 8:26 p.m. March 4
Effluent from 35-million-gallon wastewater pond leaking into Gallatin fork
On Thursday afternoon, treated wastewater began pouring down an embankment from a Yellowstone Club wastewater storage pond. 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.
Ron Edwards, general manager at the Big Sky Water and Sewer District says that short of diverting effluent into a lower wastewater treatment pond at the Yellowstone Club, not much else can be done.
“There’s no way to shut this flow off,” said Edwards, who expects the effluent to flow throughout the weekend. “They’re going to have to drain the whole thing down.”
At a community meeting held at the Big Sky Fire Department Friday evening at 5:30 p.m., Edwards, along with representatives from Yellowstone Club, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, answered questions and outlined mitigation strategies the Yellowstone Club is exploring.
Approximately 60 people attended the meeting. Mike DuCuennois, Yellowstone Club Vice President of Development, said wastewater was still discharging out of a 24-inch pipe and engineers have not yet determined the cause of the pipe rupture, although one possibility is ice formation in the pond that could have damaged the pipe.
Edwards said the pond can hold upwards of 80 million gallons of treated wastewater, but that it contained 35 million at the time of the breech. “We’re lucky in the sense that it wasn’t completely full,” he said.
DuCuennois said approximately 21 million gallons have exited the pond so far and attempts are being made to divert about eight million gallons into a golf course pond to keep it out of the Gallatin. “We think in the next hour or so we’ll be able to divert that into the golf course pond,” he said. “I’m hopeful that we have crews fixing the problem [with the pipe] 24 hours from now.”
Workers are currently using chainsaws to cut though the ice layer in order to get a camera down to the drain at the bottom of the pond to assess the situation. DuCuennois said he considered sending in divers to get a better look at the problem, but said there were preventative safety concerns resulting due to the suction created by the outflow.
The YC is now relying on trucks, which will haul an estimated 20,000 gallons per day of treated wastewater to a temporary, approved dumpsite. The trucks will dump the wastewater into a manhole at Spanish Peaks, and it will flow to the BSWSD treatment plant. “We have plenty of room for now,” said Edwards.
One meeting attendee expressed frustration that the identified dumpsite is so close to his residence, and Edwards said he would to work with his neighborhood to use a dumpsite that would work for them.
A representative from the Gallatin County Health Department recommended that people with wells near the Gallatin test their water.
Kristin Gardner, Executive Director with the Gallatin River Task Force, pointed out that her organization would be handing out well water test kits at the Post Office Tuesday, March 8 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
An attendee asked who would remedy tainted well water, and Sam Byrne with CrossHarbor Capital LLC said, “We’ll do whatever is required…to make it right or better than it was historically…We’re ready to address and help with any issues or problems downstream.”
Byrne, who is the co-founder of CrossHarbor Capital, the principle owner of the Yellowstone Club, flew down yesterday when he heard about the spill. CrossHarbor is based in Boston, Mass.
Montana DEQ is heading up assessment efforts.
According to Kristi Ponozzo, the largest concern is the amount of sediment stirred up from the effluent that has drained into the South Fork of the West Fork of the Gallatin River.
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.”
The sediment could have a profound impact on fisheries, but Dave Moser, a Fisheries Biologist with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, said that impact won’t be known until the water clears up. He said brown trout are probably the most vulnerable population since they spawn in the fall. Their eggs could suffer from reduced available oxygen caused by suspended sediment in the waterway.
At 9:30 a.m. Friday morning, Kristin Gardner, Executive Director of the Gallatin River Task Force provided comment on the spill.
She 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.
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.
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.”
Watch video from Ousel Falls:
At approximately 8:30 p.m. on March 3, 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.