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Feds, tribes reach deal on Fort Belknap water


November 22, 2013

HELENA — Environmental regulators have asked a judge to approve an agreement with Fort Belknap Indian Reservation officials to fix years of "chronic violations" in how the reservation's water supply is treated and monitored.

The U.S. Department of Justice filed the motion to approve the proposed consent decree Thursday with the Gros Ventre and Assiniboine tribes and the tribal-owned Prairie Mountain Utilities, which operates the central Montana reservation's five water-supply systems.

The agreement, which has been in the works since 2009, was originally submitted in September, along with a complaint filed on behalf of the Environmental Protection Agency. The complaint alleged the tribal government repeatedly failed to treat, report and monitor the water supply for excessive levels of sediment and coliform that could contain illness-causing bacteria and parasites.

The negotiated agreement lays out a plan for bulking up staffing levels, sets strict deadlines and reporting requirements, and imposes a $1,500 fine on the defendants. It also requires the tribal government to pay in advance the costs to operate the systems each year.

Violations have continued for years, despite several emergency and administrative corrective orders and notices of noncompliance issued by the EPA dating back to 2004, according to the complaint.

The EPA referred the case to the Justice Department, allowing them to focus on the water systems' managerial, financial and operational issues instead of relying on EPA orders on individual violations that didn't address the underlying problems, EPA staff attorney Amy Swanson said Friday.

"By referring it to the Department of Justice, we were able to expand our authority to get at the root of the problems," she said. "The EPA did not have the authority previously to order those types of internal or infrastructure-type changes."

Prairie Mountain Utilities director Margaret Nicholson declined to comment on the agreement.

The reservation has been beset by drinking water problems for years. A gold mine that operated from 1979 to 1998 contaminated the water supply and led the state Legislature to establish a $1.2 million annual trust fund to treat it.

An ineffective treatment facility that operated near Fort Belknap Agency had users under a continuing boil-water notice for several years. When that plant was replaced in 2010 with a new one partially paid for with federal stimulus aid, it also had problems treating the water coming in from the Milk River.

The problems the new agreement aim to fix don't come from mining. They are due to a lack of resources to properly run the water-supply systems, Swanson said.

The reservation's main water system draws from the Milk River and provides drinking water to about 2,200 users. There are four additional groundwater systems that supply another 415 users on the reservation.

The EPA found violations with all five systems and an extensive history of system breakdowns. It said the tribes that govern the reservation failed to dedicate enough funding and staff to properly operate them.

The reservation's water supply repeatedly exceeded the allowable limits of contaminants, such as fecal matter that can contain the bacteria E. coli, and the utility did not adequately reduce and disinfect sediments that carry the risk of parasites such as Giardia and Cryptosporidium.

The bacteria can cause diarrhea, cramps, nausea, headaches and fatigue, while parasites such as Cryptosporidium can lead to serious illness or death for people with compromised immune systems.

The EPA gave the tribes a corrective plan in 2004, followed by several orders in 2007 and 2008, but the tribes and the utility failed to comply with the orders and the violations continued, according to the Justice Department complaint.

The federal agency has not received notice of anybody sickened by the water, Swanson said.

If the agreement is approved by U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen, it will be in effect for five years, after which the U.S. government can move to end it. The tribal government can request its termination after three years if it is meeting the requirements.


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