Wealth Before Health: State Regulators Ignoring Big Sky’s Big Pollution Problem - Waterkeeper

Wealth Before Health: State Regulators Ignoring Big Sky’s Big Pollution Problem

By: Upper Missouri Waterkeeper

A river flows through Big Sky Montana

Wealthy Developers Get Categorical Exclusions; Ignoring Cumulative Impacts Polluting Gallatin River Watershed

Originally posted by Upper Missouri Waterkeeper. Republished with permission.

Breaking reporting by the HuffPost exposes the growing and unaddressed pollution and nutrient problems degrading Montana’s signature blue-ribbon waterway – the Gallatin River – caused by prolific development and inadequate wastewater treatment in the wealthy resort community of Big Sky based on research and primary source documents obtained by Upper Missouri Waterkeeper.

“The rose tinted glasses being worn by state regulators and developers can no longer block out recurring neon-green algal blooms caused by wastewater pollution degrading the Gallatin River and its tributaries. Issuing categorical exclusions and ignoring the cumulative impacts of unchecked development and nutrient rich wastewater is a disservice to all Montanans and our waterways,” said Guy Alsentzer, Upper Missouri Waterkeeper’s Executive Director. “If we, as a state, are unwilling to address the effluent of the affluent, and choose to put wealth before health in places like Big Sky and the Yellowstone Club – home to ultra-wealthy millionaires and billionaires – where will we? Our waterways and way of life are on the line.”

Pollution and nutrient loading into waterways from the greater Big Sky area isn’t a new problem. The West Fork Gallatin – which drains most of the resort areas of Big Sky – has seen neon green algal blooms every summer for at least a decade and is already listed as an impared waterway due to man-caused nutrient pollution. More recently the mainstem Gallatin downstream of its confluence with the West Fork has also experienced three consecutive years of prolific neon-green algal blooms, reaching further downstream each year. Between extreme climate change induced heat waves, low water from early snow runoff, and unchecked development greenlit by government officials flushing more nutrient rich wastewater into the watershed, another devastating algal bloom is expected on the mainstem Gallatin this summer 2021.

Nutrient enrichment, or eutrophication, is the over-fertilization of waterways by nitrogen and phosphorus, and is one of the leading causes of pollution in lakes, rivers, and coastal regions across the United States. Nutrient pollution is a real problem even in headwater regions like Montana, where expert state agency monitoring shows that over 20% of Montana’s polluted waterways is due to nutrient degradation. Nutrient pollution causes a host of negative ecological effects, not to mention degrading recreational experiences, including loss of water clarity, growth of nuisance aquatic vegetation, algal blooms, and drop-offs in dissolved oxygen levels (a critical factor for fish and other aquatic life).

The rush of affluent and ultra-wealthy people to isolated and remote rural locations of the country has been happening for decades, and has only accelerated during the CV-19 pandemic. Few places have experienced the expansive growth as the Bozeman and Big Sky areas of Montana. A Washington Post article noted data from the Gallatin Realtors Association that found median home prices jumped a whopping $94,000 in Gallatin County from July to August in 2020. Astonishingly, that pales in comparison to the greater Big Sky area. From February 2020 to February of 2021 the median price of a single family home rose over $1 million to $2.85 million or a 65% jump in just one year. Despite the jump, development and new home sales are still on a historic pace, with demand consistently outpacing supplies.

The recently approved 265-unit Quarry development project, within eyeshot of the Gallatin River, is the latest in a long list of development projects receiving categorical exemptions from pollution controls. Like many others, the Quarry Project shows a pattern and practice of failing to examine a project’s cumulative impacts on the watershed by the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) water quality bureau.

Primary source documents obtained by Waterkeeper through public records requests found an uncomfortably close relationship between state regulators and the project’s developers. On one hand regulators worked hand-in-hand with developers to allow increased water consumption for new development despite the closed nature of new water rights in the Gallatin river basin. On the other hand developers shifted away from building a state of the art centralized water treatment system after meeting with DEQ staff, and thereafter the project was segmented into four separate waste disposal sites to qualify for the 5,000 gallon exemption threshold that avoids stringent pollution permit control requirements.

Astoundingly, according to an email by a state engineer, water quality regulators knew of state administrative rules that gave the department broad authority to ‘impose specific requirements for sewage treatment and disposal’ to protect local water quality but, instead, regulators informed the bureau that the system would be ‘split into multiple drainfields so as to not require a discharge permit.’

“The pollution problems and degradation threatening the Gallatin River are bigger than one subdivision. It’s a pattern and practice of bad faith by the state’s regulators who are actively assisting polluters in doing the bare minimum – or even less – in protecting local water quality. Our government’s failure to connect the dots between unprecedented growth pressures and emerging river pollution problems, or the failure to impose protective pollution control requirements on new development projects just a baseball’s throw to the river, risks the health of one of our state’s most iconic waterways. The health of our communities and rivers must come before developers’ bottom lines,” said UMW Executive Director Guy Alsentzer.

Both the Big Sky area and the exclusive ultra-wealthy Yellowstone Club are home to numerous wealthy elites and celebrities. The area is marketed as a pristine, wild region with world-class recreation opportunities, including opportunities to recreate and fly fish on the Gallatin River. The Yellowstone Club, owned and operated by a multi-billion dollar private investment fund CrossHarbors Capital Partners, membership includes famous celebrity members, wealthy former politicians, and billionaires, like Tom Brady and Giselle Bundchen, Dan Quayle, Ben Aflleck, Justin Timberlake and Jessica Biel, Steve Burke, Bill Frist, Phil Mickelson, and Bill Gates among others. The Club recently proposed using wastewater to make snow in the winter.

Primary source documents obtained via public records request are available upon request.