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BILLINGS, Mont. -- The Department of Environmental Quality
has rejected requests from three groups to stop an exploration
company from dumping coalbed methane water into the Tongue River.
They say the river is extremely low, and the coalbed water is so
high in salts that it is overwhelming the better-quality river water.
The state agency, however, says the combined water is suitable for
all its designated uses. Those uses include aquatic life, wildlife
Fidelity Exploration and Production Co. has a permit to dump up to
1,600 gallons of coalbed water per minute into the river. Tom Reid,
environmental program manager for DEQ's water quality discharge
section, said Fidelity is discharging about 800 gallons per minute.
``We don't see an impact,'' he said.
The complaints were from two irrigation districts and the Northern
Plains Resource Council.
Coalbed methane, a natural gas now in high demand, is held in
coalbed seams by groundwater pressure. Drilling for the gas requires
pumping the water to the surface.
``We're already looking at a serious drought, and members of the
Tongue River Water Users Association have just a few days of water
left in the Tongue River Reservoir,'' said Art Hayes Jr., association
president. ``We have one water user above the dam who is being forced
to use this polluted water for irrigation, and we know that at such a
low flow, the river can't flush out the pollutants from coalbed
methane discharge water.''
The water users association sued DEQ in May, alleging that
Fidelity's discharge permit allowed the Tongue to be degraded. NPRC
and the Montana Environmental Information Center filed similar suits
the next day.
NPRC said most of the problems associated with coalbed methane
water could be addressed by reinjecting the water into aquifers.
Recently, the Tongue River was flowing at 18 cubic feet per
second, just 12 percent of average. The steamflow monitor is
downstream from sites where Fidelity is discharging water into the
river from its coalbed methane wells near Decker.
The average coalbed methane well discharges between 14,000 and
28,000 gallons of water per day, according to NPRC.
In Montana, coalbed methane water generally is high in salts and
other contaminants and is unsuitable for irrigation. However, the
water may be consumed.
Roger Muggli, manager of the Tongue and Yellowstone Irrigation
District and an NRPC member, said the river now is below flow
expectations in Fidelity's permit. ``There' s no way the river can
dilute this wastewater with such low flows,'' he said.
DEQ could reopen the permit if it thought designated uses were
threatened or if discharges exceed water quality standards. ``But
we're not to that point yet,'' Reid said. DEQ will review the permit
when it comes up for renewal next year.
Bruce Williams, vice president of operations for Fidelity in
Sheridan, Wyo., said he agrees with Reid's assessment. The permit
made conservative assumptions in determining the volume of water that
could be discharged, he said.
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