Just as the 2001 Legislature is making record time in scaling down, rolling back or just plain gutting Montana’s environmental regulations, a bill introduced at the request of the Missoula Area Chamber of Commerce could make it even more difficult for Missoula to regulate its own air quality.
House Bill 605, sponsored by Rep. Doug Mood (R-Seeley Lake), prohibits local governments from enacting air quality standards that are more stringent than state or federal law without first meeting certain procedural requirements.
Supporters of the bill say it is designed to improve public participation in drafting local air quality rules and to free businesses from what they say are oftentimes conflicting, confusing or costly air quality regulations.
“We think what this bill does is it provides a stable, repetitive platform for creating regulations, regardless of the administration that’s currently in power,” says Rex Svoboda, chairman of the Montana Council of Industry and the Economy, a committee of the Missoula Chamber of Commerce. “This is a minor adjustment to the operating rules that the Health Department go by. Right now it’s kind of gray. Sometimes they involve the regulated community, sometimes they don’t.”
But opponents of the measure, including the Missoula Health Department, some members of City Council and Mayor Mike Kadas, say that the bill is ill-conceived, unnecessary, undermines air quality in Missoula and would eventually land in court for a legal interpretation. Just how strong those sentiments are, however, remain unclear. On Monday, City Council sent back to committee a resolution opposing HB 605 in its current form.
“The language that [HB 605] puts in is, at best, confusing,” says Ellen Leahy, director of the Missoula County Health Department. “You can talk to people in Billings and they’ll read it one way, you can talk to folks at DEQ [Department of Environmental Quality] and they’ll read it another way. I really think its proponents have missed the boat.”
Leahy argues that the bill assumes—mistakenly—that local governments are not required to scientifically justify rules that are stricter than state or federal standards, or have their rulemaking process undergo public scrutiny and input. In fact, she says that all air quality laws passed at the local level must first be reviewed by the Air Pollution Control Board, City Council, the Board of County Commissioners and the State Board of Environmental Review, with public hearings held throughout the process.
Due to the unique geography of the Missoula Valley, the Air Pollution Control Board has imposed air quality rules that are stricter than state and federal laws. While Leahy admits that in the past some members of the business community have complained that they were not involved early enough in the rulemaking process, she says that such concerns have since been addressed.
For his part, Svoboda admits that the business community deserve its share of the blame for its own neglect of governmental affairs.
“In the past 10 years we on the business side have been lazy,” says Svoboda. “We haven’t aggressively tried to be involved in the government in our town. This is just a step that says, ‘We want to be involved. We are going to be involved.’”
But some local officials aren’t enthusiastic about this kind of involvement, saying that the Chamber blindsided them with this bill without first soliciting their input.
“This was just a mean-spirited bill in my mind. Mood was just doing a number on Missoula,” says Rep. Rosie Buzzas (D-Missoula). “To me it’s just a back-door attempt by big business, which is on a roll to clear all the stumbling blocks to putting whatever they want into the air and the water.”
HB 605 would require that more stringent air quality rules be reviewed under the same procedures that are now applied to state laws under the Montana Administrative Procedure Act (MAPA). Leahy says that MAPA is a poor fit for the local rulemaking process, and that no other local laws in Montana undergo a MAPA-type review.
Moreover, HB 605 would force the county to review of all of its air quality laws enacted over the last five years.
HB 605, which sailed through the House of Representatives Feb. 23, passed by only three votes in a vote largely divided along party lines, and is currently in the Senate Natural Resources Committee.
Ironically, the bill would have no effect on Missoula’s largest industries represented by the Chamber’s MCIE, such as Stimson, Smurfit-Stone Container and Louisiana-Pacific, which are all governed by state regulations. The bill would mostly affect such local air quality measures as the ban on wood stoves, street sanding, outdoor burning and the county’s Emergency Episode Avoidance Plan, which allows the Health Department to declare air alert days.
Still, proponents argue that the bill targets the rulemaking process, not Missoula’s air quality itself.
“This legislation is absolutely not about lowering air standards in Missoula, period,” says Svoboda. “It’s about changing the procedures with which we craft legislation in a democracy. The Missoulian made it sound like we’re going to start burning PCBs in Missoula next week if this thing passes.”
Missoula’s Health Department director disagrees.
“This bill doesn’t have anything to do with assisting public process,” says Leahy. “It has to do with affecting the threshold of when stringency is justified and when it isn’t. We don’t read it the same way as Mr. Svoboda reads it at all.”