CRESTON — Several hundred opponents of a proposed water bottling plant filled the school gymnasium here Monday night to voice objections over a draft discharge permit that would allow the controversial facility to operate along the Flathead River.
The meeting was organized by the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, which is accepting public comments on a wastewater discharge permit sought by Montana Artesian Water Co. The permit would allow the plant to discharge 65 gallons of treated wastewater per minute into a nearby tributary of the Flathead River.
During the hearing, more than 40 area residents took to the microphone in loud opposition to the bottling plant, while just one resident spoke in favor of the facility — Lew Weaver, the man who owns Montana Artesian Water Co., as well as the land on which the facility would sit.
“Our water will discharge no pollutants. I can assure you of that,” Weaver told the audience, asking them to trust that he has followed the proper regulatory steps and studied the potential environmental consequences.
“I’d ask you to rely on the facts, because there are a lot of emotions and a lot of misinformation,” he said, drawing loud booing and jeers from the audience.
Weaver is seeking to pump 710 acre-feet of water annually from an underground aquifer near Egan Slough along the Flathead River, the equivalent of 1.2 billion 20-ounce water bottles.
His request, and his goal to produce 140,000 water bottles per hour, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year at the facility on his farmland, has drummed up considerable attention, fueling concerns among neighbors and residents across the valley and leading to the formation of Water for Flathead’s Future, a group organized to fight the bottling plant.
Many of the group’s members and supporters were in attendance, wearing blue ribbons and buttons to display their opposition to the bottling plant.
Under the DEQ’s draft permit, the company would discharge water from the building’s temperature control system and water used to rinse bottles before being filled. Water would be drawn from an onsite, artesian, public water supply well.
But Weaver’s assurances that he was following state law did little to quell the concerns of neighboring residents, who on Monday raised questions about the amount of truck traffic the facility would generate, the environmental impact that the discharge effluent would have on the water quality, the devaluation of private property, the effects a facility of this scope would have on the scenic view shed, the precedent it would set for other companies, and the potential decrease of groundwater availability to neighboring users.
“If you have to rinse the bottles that way, there’s something in there that you don’t want to consume,” said Creston resident Tom Tucker.
Deirdre Coit, chairwoman of Water for Flathead’s Future, said the group has spent between $35,000 and $40,000 on legal representation to challenge the discharge permit, as well as to block a preliminary water right.
Coit said she expects the group will ramp up its legal bootstrapping as it continues to mount a challenge against a preliminary water right permit issued by the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.
The DNRC issued that permit in January, stating that the single well could draw up to 231.5 million gallons per year from the underground aquifer. However, the agency agreed to extend the period for formal objections until after area residents, including water right holders, requested more time.
The agency has since validated nearly 40 objections from nearby water users, as well as the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Flathead Lakers, and others.
Attorneys for the nearby water users say the DNRC should have employed a higher threshold of scrutiny when it issued its preliminary permit, in part because Weaver intends to export the bottled water to out-of-state markets, triggering an elevated evidence threshold under Montana law.
“They should have done an environmental impact statement at a higher level,” said Steve Harvey, a neighbor of Weaver’s. “They didn’t do that. They didn’t want to do that.”
On Monday evening, the three DEQ representatives who facilitated the meeting said the agency will respond to all comments received during the public-comment period, including the public hearing, in writing at a later date. They emphasized that the agency’s determination will not be swayed by the sheer volume of public comments opposed to the plan, but they will evaluate any new and relevant information that could change the permit or prompt a broader environmental review.
According to the DEQ’s draft discharge permit, the same water bottled for drinking would be used for two purposes that result in a discharge of effluent to be authorized by the proposed permit, according to the DEQ. The first would be non-contact heating water, which is an enclosed heating system. The second would be drinking water bottle rinsate, which is the water used to rinse the drinking water bottles, as a cleaning step, prior to the bottles being filled with drinking water. This rinsate water would be discharged to the receiving water via a second pipe.
According to the draft permit, the discharge flow into the receiving water body is not expected to have any adverse impacts on the geology, soil quality or stability.
The DEQ says the permit would include effluent limits, monitoring requirements and other conditions that would ensure the water quality standards were protected. The permitted outfalls will cause a slight increase in water quantity within the receiving water.
An increase in local traffic may occur with the potential to increase dust, according to the DEQ.
“However, the increased particulate matter would be short-lived and not significant,” the draft permit states. “Flathead County has approved a road approach for this project.”
Seven plant species of special concern were identified by the Montana Natural Heritage Program to potentially be in the project area. This project would be located in a well-developed residential and agricultural area and it is not anticipated that any of the species of concern will be impacted by the proposed project, according to the DEQ.
Effluent limits and permit conditions will ensure water quality standards for aquatic life are protected, according to the DEQ.
Eleven animal species and seven plant species of special concern were identified by the Montana Natural Heritage Program to potentially be in the project area. The discharges to the unnamed tributary are proposed to be located approximately 1,300 feet from the confluence of the receiving water with the Flathead River, which is considered bull trout habitat at this location. Bull trout are protected as a threatened species.
The DEQ states the permit limits would protect aquatic life in the receiving water prior to its confluence with the Flathead River and would prevent impacts to bull trout.
The deadline for submitting comments is Aug. 15.
The draft wastewater permit, fact sheet and environmental analysis can be reviewed on the DEQ website.
Comments may be submitted by mail to DEQ Water Protection Bureau, PO Box 200901, Helena, MT 59620-0901 or by email to DEQWPBPublicComments@mt.gov.
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