Company allowed to resume operations following Warm Springs wastewater spill

DEQ, Dept. of Administration determine corrective actions taken, ‘stop work’ order lifted

By: - July 28, 2023 2:28 pm

Montana State Hospital. Credit Keith Schubert

A contractor that was ordered last week to stop its work upgrading the wastewater treatment plant at the Montana State Hospital after it unintentionally released more than 3 million gallons of partially treated wastewater into Warm Springs Creek has fixed the issues and is allowed to resume work on the project, state agencies said this week.

The Montana Department of Administration issued the “Stop Work Order” to Missouri River Contractors on July 18, following multiple releases of contaminated groundwater into the creek and nearby wetlands during the month prior.

But DEQ inspected the project on Tuesday to be sure the company had met the corrective actions outlined in a July 18 violation letter ahead of the Stop Work Order and found “adequate measures have been taken to address the corrective actions” listed in the letter, according to a letter to the company from DEQ Water Quality Division Compliance Inspector John O’Bannon sent on Wednesday. He recommended the Department of Administration lift the Stop Work Order, which it agreed to do on Thursday.

A new treatment facility and wastewater lagoons at Warm Springs went online on May 19; the wetlands system utilized in the treatment process is connected to the Clark Fork River.

The DEQ was notified by the onsite project engineer on June 23 that the contractor discovered an overflow valve in the treatment system was not working properly, which sent wastewater through cells the company was trying to bypass, according to a letter from the company’s vice president notifying DEQ of potential Water Quality Act violations.

The DEQ said its inspectors went on site visits several times during the next couple of weeks, collecting and assessing water samples.

On July 12, a compliance inspector with DEQ’s Water Quality Division sent Missouri River Contractors Vice President Nick Miller the first of two Montana Water Quality Act violation letters that cited several violations of permitting statutes and rules and asked for written explanations detailing how the company had corrected the violations by Aug. 1.

DEQ inspectors went to the site the next day and found construction was still occurring, that best management practices were not being followed, water in the wetlands was cloudy, and that permits did not cover the current construction activities. The DEQ issued another notice of violation on July 18 and called for further corrective actions to be finished by Aug. 1.

The DEQ said violations included water quality impacts, doing construction in areas not covered by the permit, and failing to comply with requirements under the Montana Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit.

“MPDES permits are key to protecting state waters under the Montana Water Quality Act and ensure protections are in place to prevent potential pollution that could harm human health and the environment,” the DEQ said in a statement.

The department said sampling at the discharge point showed the water had a higher pH than allowed under permits and that removal percentages for suspended solids like organic matter and silt were not being met.

The same day the second violation notice was delivered, the Department of Administration sent Missouri River Contractors its Stop Work Order, which said the company’s “corrective actions in each instance have proven inefficient.”

The order called on Missouri River Contractors to stop all work on the project in connection with the July 18 violations and said work could not start back up until all of the corrective actions were completed.

The next day, Miller emailed the DEQ acknowledging the orders and corrective actions and saying the company was working on addressing the issues.

DEQ issued a news release about the Stop Work Order and wastewater discharges two days later, on July 21, and said it was monitoring the situation and working with the company, “ensuring the project moves forward in a responsible, protective manner which does not put Montana communities or the environment at risk.” The department said all discharges of partially treated wastewater had been stopped.

After another inspection this week following weeks of other testing, O’Bannon, the DEQ compliance inspector, told the company on Wednesday the DEQ did find two things that still needed work but that he as recommending to the Department of Administration that the Stop Work Order be lifted.

“Please be sure to take corrective actions to address the findings provided in the CEI to avoid or mitigate violations at a later date,” O’Bannon told the company’s vice president.

On Thursday, DOA Architecture and Engineering Division Administrator Russ Katherman sent a letter to Missouri River Contractors lifting the Stop Work Order and allowing the company to resume work on the project.

A representative for Missouri River Contractors did not respond to written questions this week about the initial violations and Stop Work Order, the remedial actions, or immediately to more questions Thursday about whether the company had resumed operations at the plant.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Blair Miller
Blair Miller

Blair Miller is a reporter based in Helena who primarily covers government, climate and courts. He's been a journalist for more than 12 years, previously based in Denver, Albuquerque and mid-Missouri.