U.S. Water News Online
BILLINGS, Mont. — State environmental officials say a coal-bed methane company operating in southeastern Montana violated its water quality permit 132 times over two years.
The violations involved failed toxicity tests on water discharged into the Tongue River by Fidelity Exploration and Production, a Denver-based subsidiary of MDU Resources Group.
Those tests involved putting fleas into water that's pumped out of the ground during coal-bed methane production. Enough fleas died to show that the water was toxic.
However, minnows placed in the same samples didn't die, and the toxin causing the deaths has not been identified.
The Montana Department of Environmental Quality said proposed penalties against Fidelity would be waived if the company fixes the problem.
A representative of an environmental group that has opposed coal-bed methane development in Montana said the violations should be regarded as a “canary in the coal mine.”
“The last thing we want to do is wait until dead fish are flowing in the water to decide to do something,” said Beth Kaeding, chairwoman of the Northern Plains Resource Council.
But Fidelity spokesman Joe Icenogle said the violations were a “permit concern” that didn't threaten or degrade the Tongue River.
Fleas exposed to discharge water that had been thoroughly diluted with river water did not die, he said. He said fleas began to die in water that was only 25 percent river water and 75 percent discharge water.
“Our discharge into the Tongue River never makes up 75 percent of the total flow,” Icenogle said. “It's less than 1 to 2 percent of the total flow of that river.”
Fidelity's permit allows it to pump coal-bed methane water directly into the Tongue without treating it. However, DEQ enforcement division administrator John Arrigo said treatment might be required in the future to address the toxicity issue.
“We don't have any dead fish,” said Arrigo. “If we saw dead fish or saw effects on the receiving water, we would act more aggressively.”
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