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Thursday, May 31, 2007

Page One News at a Glance

Stevi girl dies in car crash

What's in your drinking water?

County Floodplain Administrator sues Commissioner and Board of Realtors

Water Quality District on the ballot

Subdivision regs amended

Stevi girl dies in car crash

Stevensville High School student Kayla Rose Stacy was killed in a single car accident on Middle Burnt Fork road east of Stevensville, last Wednesday, May 23 at about 7:20 p.m. The fifteen year old girl was a passenger in the vehicle driven by 23 year old Clayton Elldrege, of Victor. Stacy died at the scene of the accident. Eldridge was seriously injured and flown to St. Patrick Hospital in Missoula by air ambulance where he remained hospitalized as of Tuesday, according to Highway Patrol Officer Scott Bennett.

Bennett responded to the scene last Wednesday and is investigating the accident. Bennett said that excessive speed was a factor in the crash and alcohol was probably a contributing factor as well. So far no charges have been filed in the case and the investigation is ongoing. He said it appears that the driver lost control of the vehicle, a 2002 Nissan Sentra, swerved off the road and slid sideways into a tree.

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What's in your drinking water?

By Michael Howell

The bad news is that an ever growing body of research indicates that many of our streams and rivers as well as groundwater in many places in the United States have been found to contain trace amounts of pharmaceuticals and other personal care products (PPCPs) including such things as over the counter and prescription drugs, as well as cosmetics, caffeine, antibiotics, anti-depressants, etc. The good news is that the levels detected are so low that scientists do not believe that it poses any immediate or significant health problems for humans and the technology is available to remove much of the drugs from our water supply. The troubling news is that no one knows what long term effects such trace amounts may have on humans, animals, aquatic systems, or micro organisms. On the troubling side as well is the fact that while technologies are available that can remove many of the pharmaceuticals from water, almost none are in use in the United States.

Kate Miller of the Montana Department of Environmental Quality brought that message to the Bitterroot recently as she explained to county residents at a presentation sponsored by the Bitterroot Water Forum what she found in tests of drinking water in the Helena area. Thirty-eight public and private domestic water supplies deriving their supplies from groundwater were tested in the summer and fall of 2005 for pharmaceutically-active compounds, personal care products, and endocrine disrupting compounds. The wells were also sampled for microbial indicators of fecal contamination and for inorganic constituents. PPCPs were discovered at 32 out of 35 sites, according to Miller. The water was tested for the presence of 28 different pharmaceuticals and 22 of them were detected.

The two most frequently detected PPCPs were sulfamethoxazole (SMX), a drug most commonly used in treating coronary infections, and the herbicide atrazine. SMX was found in 80 percent of the samples, while atrazine was found in 40 percent of the samples. A laundry list of 20 other pharmaceuticals was also detected in the water samples. Miller said that most of the chemicals being detected must be entering the water system through wastewater disposal, but since only two of the test sites yielded evidence of fecal contamination, her study suggests that testing for pharmaceuticals may be a better indicator of septic, or wastewater pollution in wells than the ordinary test for microbial indicators.

Miller said that there are no test labs in the state capable of doing the kind of analysis required to detect the chemicals. Testing is also expensive, costing about $800 per sample.

According to information provided by the Utah State University Extension Service, it was in the mid 1980s that research in Europe and the U.S. began to show the presence of aspirin, caffeine, nicotine, and byproducts of soaps, shampoos and other personal care products in rivers below wastewater treatment plants. In 1998 a landmark study by Thomas Ternes of Germany's Institute for Water Research and Water Technology, funded by the European Union's ongoing Poseidon Program, revealed that a sampling program found 30 different pharmaceuticals and related chemicals in surface water samples.

More recently, in 2002, a study published by the U.S. Geological Survey found a broad range of chemicals downstream from urban areas. Of the 95 chemicals the USGS measured, one or more were found in 80 percent of the streams sampled and about one-third of the streams contained 10 or more of the chemicals. Recent work by Colorado State University (2004) has also found elevated antibiotics in surface water downstream from livestock operations and manure fields. Another study published in 2004 by Emily Godfrey, William Woessner and Mark Benotti from the University of Montana discovered pharmaceuticals in waste water streams coming from the Missoula wastewater treatment plant and private septics in the area.

According to Miller, the levels of most of these chemicals measured in streams and groundwater are very low, well below the common therapeutic doses, and do not constitute reason for alarm. But she cautioned that a whole lot is not known about the potential effects of low level exposure over long periods of time.

Evidence is mounting, however, that these chemicals are finding their way into humans. For example, Utah State University Extension information notes that one study looking at household and industrial chemicals found that over 80 percent of American children contained residue of at least one pesticide. Scientists are concerned that these chemicals may disrupt human hormone systems, may cause lower sperm counts, and may be linked to increased rates of breast, testicular, and prostate cancer, and increased incidence of hyperactivity.

Antibiotics in our environment create a different kind of a problem. Disease-causing bacteria exposed to low levels of antibiotics over extended periods of time may lead to resistant strains which cannot be treated easily. Around the world, changes in fish, amphibians and other organisms have been noted. These range from premature spawning in shellfish to the inability of fish to repair damaged fins. In all cases, low levels of these chemicals are a prime suspect.

Because up to 90 percent of oral drugs can pass through humans unchanged, many of these drugs enter the environment through human and animal waste. Improper disposal of unused products is also a key factor. Many of these drugs and care products do not biodegrade and may persist in the groundwater for years.

"Doctors used to recommend disposing of any unused drugs by flushing them down the toilet," said Miller. "This is no longer advisable." She recommends putting unused prescriptions in the trash to be taken to the landfill, where it has less chance of entering the groundwater.

The amount of the chemicals being released into the environment is also a concern, The amount of personal care products and pharmaceuticals released to the environment is estimated to be about the same as the amount of pesticides used each year. The U.S. accounts for about half of all the pharmaceutical use in the world.

Miller said that although very low levels of these chemicals are being detected, there is no information available about how these trace levels may add up. For instance, several antibiotics may be present in trace levels below the therapeutic dosage, but can these antibiotics combine to have effects that may push the overall dose above therapeutic levels? And what about the interactive effects of all the various pharmaceuticals? Once again, next to nothing is known about these potential effects, or the continual, multi-generational exposure of humans, animals and microbes.

Miller said that most research being done on the phenomenon is being done by universities, private foundations and local Water Districts, not the EPA.

Once again, the good news is that the latest study by Ternes on the effectiveness of new forms of treatment at removing the offending chemicals from the drinking water supply is promising. Unfortunately, the evidence is also clear that conventional municipal wastewater treatment systems and septics like the ones in use across the Bitterroot Valley, Montana and most of the U.S., do not do the job.

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County Floodplain Administrator sues Commissioner and Board of Realtors

By Michael Howell

Ravalli County Floodplain Administrator Laura Hendrix has filed suit in District Court charging Commissioner Howard Lyons with violation of the Montana Anti-Intimidation Act, with intentional infliction of emotional distress and with violating her constitutional right to perform her official duties in a safe, healthy and pleasant environment, free from illegal intimidation. Hendrix has also leveled charges in the same lawsuit against the Bitterroot Valley Board of Realtors alleging that the group defamed her, harmed her reputation, and tried to interfere with her work by publishing a message designed to intimidate her and pressure her to back off from her enforcement responsibilities.

Lyons was elected as Ravalli County Commissioner in the fall of 2006 and took office in January 2007. Hendrix claims in her suit that shortly after taking office Lyons participated in a public meeting during which he made derogatory comments concerning her and her functioning as floodplain administrator. Then, on April 11, 2007, Lyons asked to speak to her privately in her office. She claims that on this occasion Lyons conveyed a threat to her from an unnamed "constituent," saying that she should "watch her back." She claims that he repeated this threatening phrase several times during the conversation. Lyons refused to identify the "constituent" who made the threat.

Hendrix immediately reported the incident to her department head and the next day a meeting was convened to discuss the situation involving all three commissioners, including Lyons, Human Resources Director Skip Rosenthal, Planning Director Karen Hughes, and a Deputy County Attorney. Despite repeated requests from everyone present for Lyons to disclose the name of the "constituent" on whose behalf he delivered the threat, Lyons refused.

As a result, a grievance was filed and a grievance hearing before the commissioners was held on May 22. At that meeting Lyons was again urged to reveal the identity of the "constituent" who made the threat. Hendrix claims in her suit that Lyons changed his story at that point and stated that it may not have been a single "constituent" but, rather perhaps a group of "constituents." He still refused to identify the "constituents."

The County Commissioners did issue a letter of apology to Hendrix, signed by all three, following the grievance hearing. In the letter they state that they consider her grievance is "valid and true."

"While Commissioner Lyons has stated that no threat or intimidation was intended, we agree that it was highly inappropriate for a Commissioner to go directly to you and privately advise you to 'watch your back' as the result of information he allegedly received from an outside party. We are also in agreement that any unilateral action by a Commissioner to try and directly influence an employee's official position or performance of his or her job is an abuse of that Commissioner's position and a violation of the County's adopted and established personnel policies. While we cannot undo the events that led to this regrettable situation, we can, and do, offer our full apology," states the letter.

Despite the apology, Lyons was still insistent on not revealing the identity of the "constituent" or "constituents" on whose behalf he relayed the threat and Hendrix subsequently filed suit asking for a jury trial and damages.

In the lawsuit she also charges the Bitterroot Valley Board of Realtors with defamation, tortuous interference with contract, and negligence for publishing an "article" last June as a paid advertisement in the Bitterroot Star and circulating it as an e-mail, in which she claims they mischaracterized her actions and falsely accused her of being "less than professional." She claims the message was designed and distributed in an attempt to intimidate her and pressure her to back off from her responsibilities to enforce the floodplain regulations. Hendrix claims that by circulating the false and defaming material the Board of Realtors violated its own Code of Ethics and Rules of Conduct.

Commissioner Lyons' wife, Layna, is the executive director of the Bitterroot Valley Board of Realtors. The complaint also notes that Commissioner Lyons, who is currently running for office again, received financial contributions to his campaign from various members of the Bitterroot Valley Board of Realtors, including members serving on the Board of Directors.

Lyons was asked at a recent candidate forum held in Stevensville if he believed it was a conflict of interest that his wife serves as director of the Board of Realtors and he makes decisions on subdivisions as a commissioner. Lyons said that he did not consider it a conflict of interest.

Independent candidate Carlotta Grandstaff, who is challenging Lyons for his seat in District 5 in the upcoming election, when asked the same question said, "That would be a question that Mr. Lyons should address."

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Water Quality District on the ballot

By Michael Howell

Creation of a Ravalli County Water Quality District will be on the June 5 ballot. The County Commissioners paved the way for possible creation of the district by approving a resolution of intent to that effect on July 11, 2006. The resolution states that the Ravalli County Water Quality District is "necessary for the protection, preservation and improvement of the quality of surface waters and groundwater in Ravalli County."

The Montana Local Water Quality Districts Act authorizes counties to establish such districts. Funding comes from an annual fee on all property using water or producing waste. Water Quality Districts have been established in Butte/Silver Bow, Lewis and Clark, Missoula, and Gallatin counties.

The boundaries of the proposed Ravalli County Water Quality District would include the entire county except for the incorporated towns and cities of Darby, Pinesdale, Stevensville and Hamilton, each of which opted out of participating in the district.

The proposed district will hire a water quality specialist or a hydro geologist to institute educational and preventative programs for water quality protection and preservation, provide monitoring and sampling assistance to members of the district and observe and assess activities that affect water quality within the district boundaries, generally described as the Bitterroot Valley aquifer and its watershed in Ravalli County.

The initial estimated cost of the water quality program is $142,236.

The proposed annual fee for each fee-assessed unit within the proposed service area will be $9 for residential units and $9 for commercial and industrial units with wastewater flows less than 1,000 to 5,000 gallons a day, and $27 for commercial and industrial units with wastewater flows that exceed 5,000 gallons a day. Water withdrawals for irrigation and livestock use and related water discharges are not assessed fees.

The proposed budget of $142,236 would go to pay a full-time hydro geologist or water quality specialist at $25 per hour for a total of $52,000 plus $15,600 in benefits; a full-time administrative/educational specialist at $10 per hour for a total of $20,800 plus an additional $6,240 in benefits; with the remaining $47,596 going for operating expenses, office space and supplies.

The district would be governed by a a board of directors with at least five members including a County Commissioner, a member of the Board of Health, a Conservation District Board member, and other members of the district.

Benefits afforded by a local Water Quality District include assisting landowners with questions and problems with water supply, water quality, wastewater disposal, and storm water drainage; assisting with well testing, disinfection, and treatment; providing public education on water issues; providing a central location for water resource information; assisting with local water related studies; collecting hazardous waste and preventing pollution; evaluating the interaction between groundwater and surface water and land use changes; and providing citizens a summary of program activities and the status of water resources in the district.

A sixteen-point itemized list of proposed tasks accompanies the proposal. They include such items as developing a Bitterroot Valley Watershed Protection Plan, a Household Hazardous Waste Use Reduction Plan, a plan for antifreeze and solvent recycling, a water quality monitoring program, preparation of an informational brochure, a newspaper column, and an educational program for the schools. The entire list may be viewed on the county's Environmental Health Department web page.

Critics of the proposed district raise the specter of potentially new and burdensome regulations, controls and, perhaps, metering of wells, not to mention the potential of growing costs of the programs and activities. Others criticize the proposal for creating yet another bureaucracy with no power to enact or enforce any rules.

Supporters of the district point out that the district is non-regulatory and cannot create any new regulations or controls. But it can work, they say, primarily through education, to help protect and preserve water quality in the district and at the same time is a key development in drawing federal and other funds into the county for water-related studies and improvements.

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Subdivision regs amended

By Michael Howell

The Ravalli County Commissioners amended the county's subdivision regulations last week.

Changes made in the regulations included deleting a few provisions in the subdivision pre-application process. Developers will no longer be required to produce documentation of the history of the tract for a first time minor subdivision. Evidence of legal and physical access will no longer be required. Nor will the developer be required to prove the legal status of any road providing access to the subdivision.

Documentation of existing mineral rights will no longer be required nor will road counts be required on roads accessing the subdivision. Some changes were also made concerning parkland dedication and control of noxious weeds as well.

Commissioner Alan Thompson said that the changes made have corrected a problem that existed concerning the determination of whether a road was a county road or not. Under the new rules, a developer will pay a pro-rata share for improvements to a road if it is on the newly established list of county maintained roads. If the access road is not on the list of county maintained roads, the developer will have to bring the road up to county standards.

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