Montana ranchers, groups threaten to sue DEQ

Sep 30, 2011

Throughout western history, the success of a ranch has depended heavily on its access to reliable supplies of stock water. Without this resource, few ranches can remain viable.

In modern times, this need refers not only to the quantity, but also the quality of the water available. Water quality has become a primary concern for several eastern Montana ranchers who now find themselves faced with quality problems so severe, they fear for their livelihoods. The contamination, they claim, results from nearby coal mining operations, and a lack of enforcement of Montana’s laws regarding what these operations must do to protect the groundwater surrounding their facilities.

Mining has been a mainstay of the region’s economy nearly as long as ranching has. For much of that time, regulations have been in place obliging mining companies to address the impacts to water quality caused by their operations. Regulations that mean little, ranchers contend, without enforcement by Montana’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), the state agency responsible for upholding the regulations.

Following repeated failed attempts to spur DEQ to action, frustrated ranchers have taken the next step. In conjunction with the Montana Environmental Information Center (MEIC), theseranchers sent a letter to DEQ last week informing that agency of their intent to file a lawsuit if action is not taken to bring the mines into line with regulations.
“Montana’s water belongs to everyone, we all depend on it,” said rancher Doug McRae in a recent MEIC press release. “State regulators are asleep at the switch and need to wake up. Without clean water, I simply can’t run my business.”
A fourth-generation rancher in the region, McRae has lived cheek by jowl with coal mining for most of his life. The problems he and his neighbors currently face, he says, is not new. As early as the 1980s he says, problems with water quality on his ranch have been apparent.
“I encountered some problems with yearlings in 1988,” he says. “We put them out on a pasture that had a surface pond, and they were reluctant to drink. That fall, I had some pairs in that same pasture, and I ran into problems with a lack of immune response in those cattle.”
According to McRae, post mortem examinations showed that the suppressed immune response in his cattle was the result of a severe copper deficiency.
According to nutritionists, while copper deficiency can be the direct result of low soil copper levels, it can also be the result of other minerals, such as lead, in the system that bind to the copper, resulting in a compound that cannot readily be absorbed by cattle.
According to McRae, the nature of the mining operations makes introduction of these contaminants very possible. In an open pit or ‘strip’ mine, the topsoil is removed from a site, followed by the ‘overburden,’ or all the material that lies over the coal seam, exposing the underlying coal. Once the exposed coal is removed, the overburden is put back into the pit.
“Around here, the coal is also the aquifer,” explains McRae. “So they’re putting all of that stuff directly into the water supply.” In addition, he points out, the material that goes back in is far more permeable than it was prior to disturbance, meaning that minerals and other substances in the dirt are more readily dissolved and carried downstream. With little other recourse, McRae began routinely supplying his cattle with minerals containing elevated levels of copper to combat the deficiency problem.
Despite these measures, McRae continued to lose the occasional cow from these pastures, though the cause of death was not always clear. In recent years, however, the problem has grown worse. “Last year,” says McRae, “I observed a cow that had a kind of dazed look. I was able to approach her in the open, and even lay a hand on her.”
McRae quickly called in a veterinarian to assess the cow’s apathetic state. The vet provided several possible causes for her condition, but by the following morning, the cow had died. “We continued to lose animals in this way until I was finally able to get one into the vet clinic while still alive,” said McRae.
More extensive testing showed that the cow was suffering from lead poisoning. Following this, McRae was encouraged by nutritionists and others to collect water samples from nearby sources. He also contacted DEQ to alert them to his concerns. “They said they were going to send some folks out to do some testing, but that they lacked the funds to do so,” said McRae.
Frustrated, he offered to pay for the project. “Finally, they did come through and test some water.” According to nutritionists, he says, the samples were so foul it was unlikely that a cow would even drink the water. McRae has continued to test his water through the spring, and says that spring runoff dilutes the water source to something a cow might drink, but that would still be toxic.
“We’re talking about electrical conductivities between 12,000 and 20,000,” he says. Because pure water does not conduct electricity, a measure of the conductivity of a sample can be used as an approximation for the levels of mineral and other material in the water. In contrast, Montana DEQ sets an upper threshold limit of 2,500 for irrigation water.
Based upon his own sampling, McRae feels he has affected water at other sites as well, and is at a loss to understand why DEQ has failed to take action so far. “I guess from my perspective, I think that the DEQ is aware there is a problem here. If it was me, I would want to know as much about the extent of the problem, and what could be done to fix it, as I could possibly find out,” he said.
That, more than anything else, says McRae, is what led he and the other ranchers to send the letter of intent to sue. At the very least, he feels DEQ should be alerting area ranchers of the potential problem. “Tell livestock owners in the area that you need to be supplementing additional copper, or chelated copper,” he points out.
“It just doesn’t seem like there’s been any effort made to rectify the problem, or to at least inform us that we have a situation out here and provide guidelines on how to deal with it until they can investigate it further.”
For its part, though DEQ has made no promises, it is examining the situation. “We’re still looking over the notice,” said DEQ spokeswoman Lisa Pederson. “While we do have some disagreements with what they are claiming, we share the same goals of protecting water quality. As we look at their information, if we identify any valid claims, we’ll look at our coal program to see where any improvements can be made.”
According to the letter, DEQ has 60 days to begin addressing the water quality issues outlined by the ranchers or they will face a lawsuit. “It is time for DEQ to get serious about protecting Montana’s waters,” said Ellen Pfister, another affected rancher, in the MEIC press release. “We have good laws on the books, but without enforcement, they are meaningless. We’ve asked the DEQ to take a comprehensive approach to protecting our ground and surface water, but they have forced us to play this hand. Now the choice is up to the agency.”