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DEQ: Gallatin River Pharmaceutical Traces Unlikely To Affect Human Health

Water from a treated sewage holding pond at Big Sky leaks into the Gallatin River, March 3, 2016.
Courtesy Explore Big Sky/Outlaw Partners
Water from a treated sewage holding pond at Big Sky leaks into the Gallatin River, March 3, 2016.

State officials today released the third and final water quality report for the March 3 wastewater spill that polluted parts of the Gallatin River.

Officials wanted to know how pharmaceutical traces found in the sewage waste could have affected human and aquatic life.

But according to Kristi Ponozzo of the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, there was a problem with the state’s pharmaceutical water quality standards.

"We don’t have any. There are no federal water quality criteria for pharmaceuticals, nor does Montana have any adopted pharmaceutical water quality standards.”

So they essentially borrowed Minnesota’s standards and screening values. DEQ sampled and analyzed for 46 pharmaceutical chemicals and breakdown products after millions of gallons of sewage spilled into the Gallatin River earlier this spring.

Of those 46 chemicals, 18 were detected in the water spilling directly from the pond.

"And fortunately what we found was that none of Minnesota’s values were exceeded. We decided that human health effects from any individual chemical tested in the study were unlikely.”

DEQ says pharmaceuticals can harm aquatic life at very low concentrations.

"And there was one chemical that achieved levels which exceeded levels shown to have an effect on aquatic invertebrates in laboratory studies.”

But DEQ’s ability to assess its impact on aquatic life is limited.

The Yellowstone Club is the owner and operator of the wastewater pond that failed. DEQ issued a violation letter to notify the Club that it violated the Montana Water Quality Act.

The alleged violations are for sediment and ammonia pollution.

Edward O’Brien first landed at Montana Public Radio three decades ago as a news intern while attending the UM School of Journalism. He covers a wide range of stories from around the state.  
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