Wyoming, Montana continue settlement talks in water quality suit

Billings, Montana (AP) 9-07

Wyoming, Montana and the Environmental Protection Agency are making progress toward settling a lawsuit over Montana’s water quality rules on the Tongue and Powder rivers, according to court records.

U.S. District Judge Clarence Brimmer in Cheyenne recently granted a motion from the Wyoming attorney general’s office to delay litigation until Oct. 7 so talks could continue.

In court papers filed in early August, Wyoming Attorney General Pat Crank said the parties were making real progress toward resolving issues.

Crank, who left office recently to enter private practice, stated that the parties were committed to continue meeting, but hadn’t reached an agreement because of the complexity of the issues.

“The outlines of how Montana, Wyoming and the EPA might administer water quality on the Tongue River, the Powder River and their respective tributaries is taking shape,” Crank said.

Crank stated that another 60 days would give the parties time to draft a proposed settlement that the governors of the two states and other parties in the case could consider.

The dispute centers on water-quality standards for salinity that Montana adopted in 2003 and which the EPA approved for the Tongue and Powder rivers and their tributaries. The rivers start in Wyoming and flow into Montana.

Montana officials say the standards are intended to protect against discharges of salty groundwater produced by drilling for coal-bed methane.

Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal has objected to the Montana standards. In April 2006, he asked the EPA to reject Montana’s rules on the grounds that they would harm natural gas production in Wyoming.

Three energy companies – Pennaco Energy Inc., Marathon Oil Co. and Devon Energy Corp. – also sued the EPA in Wyoming seeking to overturn the agency’s decision. Wyoming joined the case on the side of the companies, while Montana intervened to defend its standards. Several other companies, environmental organizations and irrigators also have entered the suit.

The EPA started mediation with Wyoming and Montana and with the Northern Cheyenne Tribe. The EPA and the two states asked Brimmer nearly a year ago to put litigation on hold. The parties have been meeting since then and have been providing the judge with status reports.