U.S. Water News Online
MILES CITY, Mont. -- When the soil in Roger Muggli's fields
turned bad last year, damaging more than 300 acres of alfalfa, the
third-generation farmer quickly named a culprit -- coal-bed methane
drilling along the nearby Tongue River.
Muggli's finger-pointing has made him few friends in a region
where economic development is desperately needed and future coal-bed
methane production could mean hundreds of new jobs. His claims are
denied by industry representatives and some federal scientists, who
say a link between coal-bed methane and Muggli's bad soil cannot be
But state officials and an independent researcher warn that
Muggli's problems might be a harbinger of things to come, as the
industry prepares to dramatically ramp up operations across 20
million acres in southeastern Montana.
"We knew this was coming and we wanted to prepare for it," said
Richard Opper, director of the Montana Department of Environmental
Quality. "It's definitely a wake-up call when you see the impact."
At issue are millions of gallons of water pumped daily from coal
seams to access trapped methane, or natural gas. The water, which can
be loaded with salts harmful to plants or soil, is sometimes treated
or used to water livestock. Other times, it is pumped directly into
local stream and river drainages.
Last year, Montana adopted new water quality rules meant to
protect agriculture while allowing for further coal-bed methane
Muggli and some other farmers say the rules don't go far enough,
while energy companies have sued to overturn them.
Meanwhile, the federal Bureau of Land Management is working on a
plan to allow more than 18,000 coal-bed methane wells to be drilled
in Montana over the next 20 years. About 1,000 wells already produce
methane in the state.
In neighboring Wyoming, there are more than 17,000 producing wells
along the Tongue and the Powder River -- a number expected to more
than double in coming years. Both rivers flow into Montana.
With vast sums of money at stake -- starting at a projected $100
million a year in Montana and peaking at almost $3 billion annually
at full production -- coal-bed methane companies such as Fidelity
Exploration and Production are doing their own agricultural
monitoring and say their operations are benign.
They also point to federal studies showing only minor changes to
water quality along the Tongue River in recent years, despite
"We have tried to use the best science to ensure there is
protection for the irrigators on the Tongue River," said Bruce
Williams, vice president of Fidelity, a subsidiary of MDU Resources
Research indicates that Fidelity's operations aren't causing
Muggli's problems, he added. "There's just an awful lot of data to
suggest that's not the case," Williams said.
Up to 2 million gallons of water produced by the industry are
discharged daily into the Tongue in Montana. Almost 10 times that
amount is put into the Powder River upstream in Wyoming, according to
the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality.
Though coal-bed methane water contains sodium, the two rivers have
naturally high levels of sodium. So gauging the industry's impact on
the river water is difficult.
Muggli said when he used irrigation water from the Tongue last
growing season, the clay-based soils in three fields were rendered
When clay soil has too much sodium, it can collapse to form an
impenetrable seal. With water and air unable to get through the soil,
Muggli's alfalfa turned yellow within a month.
"The only change we've had after irrigating with this water for
120 years is CBM (coal-bed methane)," Muggli said. "Who else am I
going to blame?"
Matt Janowiak of the Bureau of Land Management said he would rule
out CBM discharge water as the cause of Muggli's problem given the
distance between Fidelity's wells and Muggli's fields -- more than
A study by the U.S. Geological Survey showed a slight increase in
sodium levels in the Tongue River. But with the region in the midst
of a prolonged drought, the group could not say whether CBM was the
James Bauder, an environmental scientist at Montana State
University in Bozeman, said only time will tell if Montana's
regulations are sufficient. In the meantime, he said Muggli's
predicament should be taken as a warning.
"It's sort of like realizing the back end of the freight train has
a problem and you've got to get all the way to the front to fix it
and you can't," he said. "You can't recall water in a stream and you
can't recall the impact it will have on the landscape."
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