SB 48, by Tom Richmond (R-Billings), would allow the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to adopt rules and issue “variances” from water quality standards to water pollution dischargers (i.e., Exxon, Calumet, Cenex, etc.). DEQ claims that this bill is simply implementing Federal Clean Water Act regulations. However, the bill goes much, much further than federal law. In terms of implementing regulations, there are important differences between SB 48 and the Federal Clean Water Act (some of which are currently before a federal district court in Montana). There are also serious legal conflicts between SB 48 and the Montana constitutional right to a clean and healthful environment. Essentially, SB 48 contains provisions that will weaken Montana’s water quality protections and open the door for abuse.

More specifically,

  • SB 48 allows for water pollution dischargers to receive variances from water quality standards years before they are required to submit a pollution prevention plan.  The granting of a variance by the DEQ should be similar to federal regulations which require the submittal and implementation of a pollution prevention plan in order to receive a variance from water quality standards. If the DEQ insists on issuing variances from water quality standards, it should require nothing less than implementation of a pollution prevention plan during the entire duration of the water quality variance.
  • The original language of the bill was simply unpalatable. DEQ listened to a coalition of deeply concerned organizations and delayed action on the bill, but unfortunately came back with a proposed amendment to SB 48 that allows DEQ to issue a variance when a permittee cannot “reasonably be expected to meet the standard…” This is a new, undefined, and arbitrary term that conflicts with the EPA’s current rule for when variances may be allowed. The EPA has determined that variances should only be granted after a specific showing of facts and science that are sufficient to satisfy one of six circumstances.

Montana’s waters are too important to pass SB 48.




Heard in the Senate Natural Resources Committee on February 13th. Passed that committee on an 11-0 vote. Passed the Senate Floor on a 43-7 vote. Passed the House Natural Resources Committee on a 10-5 vote. Passed the House Floor on a 76-22 vote.

On its way to the Governor’s desk.

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