SALMON, Idaho - A federal judge has approved a far-reaching settlement giving Montana until 2014 to clean up polluted streams and lakes in 28 watersheds across the state, capping nearly 15 years of legal battles, officials said on Monday.
The deal covers more than 17,000 miles of rivers and streams and 461,000 surface acres of lakes, requiring them to meet water-quality standards set for uses such as drinking, swimming and fishing, under the federal Clean Water Act.
The settlement, signed by U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy on September 27 and made public on Monday, addresses hundreds of types of pollutants, including hazardous chemicals like polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, and heavy metals such as mercury.
The deal stems from a 1997 lawsuit that said the Environmental Protection Agency and the Montana Department of Environmental Quality had violated the Clean Water Act by permitting contaminants to be released into the state's already degraded waters.
In 2003, Molloy sided with the Alliance for the Wild Rockies and other environmental groups, ordering Montana to develop pollution control plans for many waterways by 2012.
Under the settlement, Montana agreed to broaden the scope of cleanup plans to include additional lakes and streams and to encompass entire watersheds instead of targeting only the most polluted stretches of waterways.
In return, environmentalists gave the state two more years to curb pollution and restore impaired surface waters as spelled out under the Clean Water Act.
Alliance for the Wild Rockies head Michael Garrity hailed the agreement as "Montana's most far-reaching environmental victory in a decade."
Richard Opper, head of the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, credited the 14-year-old lawsuit brought by environmentalists with making the state "get its act together."
"We lost the original case, and we deserved to lose," he told Reuters in a telephone interview on Monday. "In the old days, we weren't following that federal law very well. Now we have a new attitude, and we are doing the right thing."
The new settlement singles out for restoration such resort destinations as Flathead Lake in northwestern Montana, where PCBs are a key pollutant. Flathead Lake is the largest natural freshwater lake in the West, covering a surface area of almost 200 square miles.
It also requires the state to limit the release of contaminants such as lead and arsenic into famous rivers like the Clark Fork in western Montana.
The Clark Fork, a world-class trout fishery and a major tributary of the Columbia River, supplies drinking water to communities outside Missoula and is home to bull trout listed as threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.
(Editing by Steve Gorman and Cynthia Johnston)