Types of Groundwater Contamination Common in Montana

Types of Groundwater Contamination Common in Montana

With its vast expanses of pristine wilderness and agricultural lands, Montana is well known for its abundant groundwater resources like artesian wells, springs, and aquifers.

However, despite its seemingly untouched beauty, groundwater contamination is a pressing issue in many areas of the state. Understanding the types of groundwater contamination prevalent in Montana is crucial for effective management and remediation efforts.

In this post, let’s take a look at the various sources and types of groundwater contamination that affect the Big Sky Country.

What is Groundwater Contamination

Over 115 million people—about one-third of the United States population—rely on groundwater for drinking water, and 22% (1 in 5) of United States Geological Society (USGS) groundwater samples contain at least one contaminant at a concentration high enough to be a human health concern.

Groundwater contamination occurs when pollutants seep into the groundwater, the water beneath the Earth’s surface that supplies wells and springs. Contaminants can originate from both natural and anthropogenic sources, posing serious threats to human health and the environment.

In Montana, a combination of industrial activities, agriculture, mining, and urban development contributes to groundwater pollution.

Agricultural Runoff

One of the primary sources of groundwater contamination in Montana is agricultural runoff.

Pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers applied to farmland can leach into the soil and eventually infiltrate the groundwater. Nitrate contamination is particularly prevalent, stemming from the excessive use of nitrogen-based fertilizers.

Elevated nitrate levels in drinking water pose significant health risks, especially to infants and pregnant women, potentially leading to methemoglobinemia, or “blue baby syndrome.”

Mining Activities

Montana’s rich mineral deposits have fueled a long history of mining activities in the state.

From the early days of the gold rush in areas like Bannack and Virginia City to the modern extraction of minerals like silver, lead, zinc, and coal, Montana’s mineral wealth has played a pivotal role in shaping its identity and landscape.

Unfortunately, these mining operations can also result in various forms of groundwater contamination.

Acid mine drainage, a byproduct of metal mining, releases acidic water containing heavy metals such as arsenic, lead, and mercury (3 of the 5 common “toxic heavy metals) into the groundwater and surface water bodies. These contaminants pose severe ecological and health hazards, persisting in the environment long after mining activities cease.

The challenges of environmental stewardship, responsible resource management, and balancing economic development with conservation efforts remain ongoing concerns in Montana’s mining sector.

Industrial Pollution

Industrial facilities across Montana contribute to groundwater contamination through improper disposal of hazardous waste and industrial runoff.

Chemical spills, leaks from storage tanks, and inadequate waste management practices can introduce toxic substances like solvents, heavy metals, and petroleum hydrocarbons into the groundwater.

Contaminants from industrial sources not only jeopardize drinking water supplies but also contaminate soil and affect aquatic ecosystems. As a result, 17 of the country’s Superfund sites are located in the state.

A Superfund site is an area designated by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as contaminated by hazardous waste and identified as a candidate for cleanup under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) of 1980.

These sites typically pose significant risks to human health and the environment due to the presence of pollutants such as heavy metals, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), pesticides, or radioactive materials.

Landfill Leachate

Landfills serve as repositories for municipal solid waste in many communities throughout Montana.

However, these sites pose a significant risk of groundwater contamination due to leachate, a liquid produced as rainwater percolates through decomposing waste.

Leachate contains a cocktail of organic and inorganic pollutants, including heavy metals, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and pathogens. Without proper containment measures, landfill leachate can seep into the groundwater, contaminating aquifers and nearby surface water bodies.

The effects of leachate in Montana have been widespread and detrimental to both the environment and public health, including:

  • Contamination of Groundwater: In Montana, where groundwater serves as a vital source of drinking water for many communities, elevated levels of these pollutants can pose serious health risks to people and families who rely on groundwater for drinking, bathing, and irrigation.
  • Surface Water Pollution: Leachate can also contaminate surface water bodies such as rivers, streams, and lakes, leading to algal blooms, fish kills, and habitat degradation. Contaminated surface water poses risks to recreational activities like fishing, swimming, and boating, as well.
  • Soil Contamination: The presence of pollutants in soil can impair soil quality and fertility, potentially affecting agricultural productivity and ecosystem health, as well as accumulating in food crops grown in contaminated soil, posing risks to human health.
  • Air Pollution: Landfills that generate leachate can also emit odorous gases and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), including methane, into the air, contributing to air pollution in nearby communities. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas that can worsen climate change and impact local air quality, posing respiratory and other health risks to nearby residents.
  • Ecological Impacts: Terrestrial ecosystems and biodiversity surrounding landfill sites are negatively impacted by soil and air pollution, altering plant communities and disrupting wildlife habitats.

Urbanization and Septic Systems

As urban areas expand in Montana, the proliferation of septic systems presents a growing concern for groundwater quality.

Improperly maintained or failing septic tanks can leak raw sewage into the groundwater, introducing pathogens, nutrients, and organic pollutants. Urban runoff, generated from impervious surfaces like roads and parking lots, can also contribute to groundwater contamination by carrying pollutants into stormwater drains and infiltration basins.

These can include:

  • Oil, grease, and toxic chemicals from motor vehicles
  • Pesticides and fertilizers from crops, lawns, and gardens
  • Viruses and bacteria from pet waste and failing septic systems
  • Road salts
  • Heavy metals from roof shingles, motor vehicles, and other sources

Groundwater contamination is a multifaceted issue in Montana, stemming from various human activities and natural processes.

Addressing this challenge requires a concerted effort from Montana’s government agencies, industries, communities, and individuals to implement effective pollution prevention measures, remediation strategies, and sustainable land use practices.

If you have any questions about groundwater contamination, its effects, or related legal actions in our state, feel free to reach out to a groundwater contamination lawyer at Western Justice Associates, PLLC.

By understanding the types and sources of groundwater contamination prevalent in Montana, we can work towards preserving this invaluable resource for future generations.