Court revokes coal-bed methane company’s permits

By Matt Volz
Helena, Montana (AP) May 2010

The state Department of Environmental Quality violated federal and state environmental laws by allowing an exploration company to pump untreated water used in coal-bed methane drilling into the Tongue River, the Montana Supreme Court has ruled.

The ruling during May voided the discharge permits issued to Fidelity Exploration and Production Co., but said the company can continue operating while the DEQ reevaluates the permits.

The state regulator must issue new permits within 90 days that impose the proper pre-discharge treatment standards, the state high court said.

Coal-bed methane is a type of natural gas typically found in underground seams saturated with water, and millions of gallons of water must be pumped out to free the gas.

The water, which is high in salt, is a potential threat to the crops of downstream farmers. It is considered a pollutant under the federal Clean Water Act.

Fidelity has been discharging the untreated water into the southeastern Montana river since 1998.

The court ruled DEQ violated the Clean Water Act and Montana’s Water Quality Act by issuing Fidelity permits without imposing pre-discharge treatment standards on the water.

The DEQ allowed Fidelity to discharge nearly 7 million pounds of sodium and 17 million pounds of salts into the Tongue River each year under a single permit, even though the company has a treatment facility in place that could dramatically reduce the pollutant levels, Justice Brian Morris wrote in his opinion.

The 7-0 decision reverses a lower court’s ruling that said the DEQ used the proper standards in issuing the permits to Fidelity and that the DEQ had the discretion to decide whether to impose those pre-discharge treatment standards.

The Supreme Court’s review of the Clean Water Act makes it clear that the DEQ has no choice but to enforce those treatment standards, which furthers the act’s goal of “eliminating” pollutant discharge into the nation’s waterways, Morris wrote.

The ruling was in a lawsuit brought by the Northern Cheyenne, the Tongue River Water Users’ Association and Northern Plains Resource Council.

“The Supreme Court finally saw the light as to how crucial it is that coal bed methane development is done right,” Roger Muggli, manager of the Tongue & Yellowstone Irrigation District, said in a statement.