Apparently environmentalists aren’t the only ones filing lawsuits in the Rocky Mountain West. Four gas producers are suing Montana in an effort to overturn water-quality standards that impose what the producers say are “excessive” requirements on the quality of water exiting coalbed methane (CBM) development areas in the Powder River Basin.

Marathon Oil Co., Marathon subsidiary Pennaco Energy Inc., Nance Petroleum Corp. and Yates Petroleum Corp. say the water-quality standards adopted by Montana Board of Environmental Review and the Montana Department of Environmental Quality in 2003 and earlier this year are “excessively severe and unjustified,” violate Montana law and “lack sound scientific justification.” The complaint for declaratory judgment was filed in state district court in Big Horn County.

The companies say the Montana water quality standards have been directed at their CBM development across the state border in Wyoming. CBM wells bring large volumes of sodium-rich groundwater to the surface, and Montana irrigators say discharges of the CBM water into rivers and streams could pollute their irrigation water and damage soils and crops.

The Montana water quality standards impose requirements related to electric conductivity and sodium absorption ratios in the waters of the Tongue, Powder and Little Powder rivers and Rosebud Creek and all tributaries and other surface waters located in the watershed of each of these rivers. Those rivers have headwaters in Wyoming and flow to the Yellowstone River in Montana.

“These regulations impose water quality standards that in many instances, are actually more stringent than naturally-occurring background concentrations, then cut even these standards by more than half,” the producers said in their complaint. “The [Montana Board of Environmental Review] ignored scientific evidence and years of experience demonstrating that these extreme limits are not necessary to prevent supposed harm to crops grown in Montana.

“None of the streams affected by these regulations, including the stream that has received much of the regulators attention, the Tongue River, suffers impairment from coalbed natural gas discharges,” the producers told the court. “Indeed, the board chose to ignore expert findings that any impairment to the Tongue River comes from irrigation and natural causes.”

The producers say the board’s action to impose water quality restrictions in excess of the federal requirements without providing a written finding with supporting scientific evidence violates state law.

If the board had looked at the evidence, the producers say it would have determined that its standards are “more stringent than needed to maintain the usability of the Tongue River for irrigation.”

They told the court that the board “ignored record evidence that the soils in southeastern Montana are significantly less susceptible to the effects of salinity in irrigation water than the board assumed” and that water from the other rivers that exceeds the quality limits imposed by the board still has been used for irrigation “without detrimental effects to irrigated soils or crops.”

Lynn Solomon, of the Montana Attorney General’s Office, said the state is reviewing the lawsuit and will defend against it, but no response has been filed yet.

The case is the second court challenge to Montana’s numeric water-quality standards for salinity. In April, Marathon, Pennaco and Devon Energy Corp. sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in federal court in Wyoming. That complaint seeks to overturn EPA’s approval of Montana’s 2003 standards. Wyoming intervened on the side of the companies, while Montana entered the case to defend its standards. Yates and Williams Production RMT Co. also have joined the suit.

Commenting earlier on the Wyoming suit, Montana Attorney General Mike McGrath said, “Our standards are based on sound science. There’s no doubt that if these companies get away with negating them, water quality in these streams will suffer and it will be Montana irrigators who pay the price in lower production and damaged soils.”

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