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Know the West

Sewage fouls Yellowstone

  Outdated plumbing at tourist lodges in Yellowstone National Park is spilling sewage into lakes and streams, and the state of Wyoming has taken an unprecedented step: In October, it threatened to fine the National Park Service unless it fixes antiquated sewage systems pieced together over the last 50 years. Such fines are unprecedented in Wyoming, and the state attorney general is still determining whether the state can, by law, fine the National Park Service.

"We needed to do something to get ... the Park Service's attention to correct these problems," says Dennis Hemmer, director of the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality. "They just can't continue to be putting out raw sewage into these lakes and streams."

Word of the fines came one week after 40,000 gallons of sewage from the Old Faithful Inn backed up and spilled into the Firehole River. Three earlier releases in the park dumped almost 180,000 gallons in Yellowstone Lake and Myriad Creek. Both waters are classified as Class I waters, and polluting such high-quality waters is against state law.

For its part, Yellowstone National Park has sought millions of dollars in repair money from Congress for more than 10 years, but most of those requests have gone unanswered. The park did receive funding to fix the sewage treatment plant at Old Faithful, which was polluting groundwater.

Environmentalists say it's time for somebody to step in to preserve park waters.

"These spills are happening again and again," says Michael Scott of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. "It's really discouraging when we see the state of Wyoming (protecting) the park from a problem the Park Service can't seem to fix."