US government, Montana county make deal over water system

By MarketsAssociated Press

The U.S. government has asked a judge to approve an agreement with Beaverhead County to upgrade a small Montana community's drinking water system after years of finding excessive contamination and numerous monitoring failures.

The Department of Justice filed the proposed agreement Wednesday along with a lawsuit alleging the county's water and sewer district committed violations dating to 2009 and then disobeyed multiple Environmental Protection Agency orders to fix them.

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The violations include levels of arsenic and radioactive contaminants that exceeded the limits set by Montana multiple times. Despite those excessive levels, the district failed to monitor for those and other contaminants and failed to make the required disclosures to state regulators and the public, the lawsuit said.

The groundwater system serves fewer than 50 people in the small southwestern Montana community of Jackson, located near the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest about 110 miles southwest of Butte.

Beaverhead County attorney Jed Fitch did not immediately return a call for comment Friday.

The proposed agreement calls for the county to regularly monitor for contaminants and file its required reporting to regulators and the public as soon as the deal takes effect.

The county would have until the end of the year to upgrade the water system and stay within the approved limits for arsenic and the radionuclides radium and gross alpha.

The agreement notes that the water and sewer district has very limited financial resources, but it recently secured $588,000 in grants for improvements.

Half of the money will come from Montana's Treasure State Endowment Program, and the other half from the U.S. Housing and Urban Development's Community Development Block Grant program.

The money will be used to drill three new wells and build a new well house.

The agreement also sets out fines for each time a contamination threshold is exceeded or a monitoring or reporting deadline is missed in the future.

The deal between the county and the U.S. government must be approved by a judge after a public comment period to take effect.

High levels of arsenic were found in the Jackson drinking water system as far back as 2005, when Montana prepared to adopt new water contamination limits. The county received a three-year exemption to comply, and only started racking up violations when the exemption expired in 2009.

The EPA lists 16 violations in its lawsuit that include not only excessive arsenic and radionuclides, but the county water district's failure to monitor for several other contaminants — asbestos, pesticides and coliform bacteria. The district also failed to submit required reports on contamination and monitoring to state regulators and its customers, the lawsuit said.