Representatives from the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) landed waist-deep in hot water last week over a proposed water discharge permit for Smurfit-Stone Container which environmentalists say would undermine years of good-faith efforts to reduce water pollution in the Clark Fork River.
Environmental-ists argue that a recent draft of the water discharge permit for the Frenchtown pulp mill, released by the DEQ for public review and comment, fails to live up to commitments made in the so-called Voluntary Nutrient Reduction Program (VNRP), an agreement signed in August 1998 by the DEQ and other major dischargers into the Clark Fork River, including the City of Missoula. The VNRP aims at reducing nitrogen and phosphorus levels, which in warmer weather fuel the growth of algae and threaten the overall health of the Clark Fork River and Lake Pend Oreille.
“DEQ has shown a blatant disregard for all the hard work that went into the VNRP,” says Geoff Smith, staff scientist for the Clark Fork Pend Oreille Coalition. “Instead of referring to the nutrient-reduction measures that were part of the VNRP, [DEQ] actually increased the allowable amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus that Stone can dump into the river, and I think that’s preposterous.”
Local environmentalists are particularly annoyed that the permit doesn’t even mention the VNRP, which took four years to negotiate and involved significant commitments by the cites of Missoula, Butte and Deer Lodge and Smurfit-Stone to address water quality issues affecting Montana, Idaho and Washington.
“The city [of Missoula] is committed to spending literally tens of millions of dollars to upgrade their wastewater treatment plant facility over the course of the next five years to make this VNRP work,” says Smith. “It seems to me that the [DEQ] is perfectly willing to make the taxpayers of the city of Missoula live up to the commitments of the VNRP, but they’re not willing or able to make our industrial dischargers on the river do the same thing.”
Other critics argue that the draft permit is too lenient on the temperature of water Smurfit-Stone discharges into the river. Although Tim Byron of the DEQ asserts that the current discharge limit of 98 degrees raises river temperatures by only one-half of a degree, Darrell Geist of Cold Mountain, Cold Rivers says that the 16 million gallons of effluent discharged daily by Smurfit-Stone can raise river temperatures by as much as 10 degrees.
Neverthe-less, Smith, Geist and others did acknowledge the positive efforts made by the company to improve water quality, notably, the decision last February to close its chlorine bleaching facility, thereby eliminating about 150,000 pounds of toxic chemicals from the environment each year.
The DEQ’s comment period on the draft permit ends Jan. 31.