Until recently, Anne Hedges, the Montana Environmental Information Center’s (MEIC) program director, didn’t see the Montana Environmental Review Board (MERB) as a body that would do much to protect the state’s environment.
But since Gov. Brian Schweitzer named four new appointees to the seven-member board, Hedges recognizes an opportunity to make significant changes to state environmental rules—changes that could strengthen clean air and water protections in Montana.
“They’re starting to tackle the things they should have tackled a long time ago,” Hedges says. “They haven’t been addressing the needs of the state for many years.”
MERB sets the rules that tell the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) how to implement laws passed by the Legislature, as well as hears appeals of DEQ decisions. The board is comprised of seven governor-appointed members, four of whom are appointed during each gubernatorial term.
Typically, the board is given wide discretion in setting rules, according to its chairman, Joe Russell. Hedges and the MEIC—along with another environmental group, the Northern Plains Resource Council (NPRC)—are hoping MERB will use this discretion to create new environmentally friendly policies.
A petition brought by the MEIC asks the board to set mercury emissions standards for coal power plants. Currently Montana has no emissions standards for mercury. MERB voted last month to delay making any mercury rules, but Russell says the board will take a look at emissions standards again in the spring, when it has more time.
Another petition by MEIC asks the board to require mining companies to restore water quality to state standards within two years of completing mining operations. As of now, miners can leave the land in such a state that water needs to be treated in perpetuity.
A third petition, brought by NPRC, would stop companies that extract coal bed methane from pouring millions of gallons of high-sodium water, a by-product of the extraction process, into rivers or allegedly leaky evaporation ponds. The proposed rules would require the water to be re-injected into the earth or treated before being disposed of above ground.
DEQ-supplied biographies of current board members provide some hints as to why MEIC and NPRC are excited about the new board. Liberty County Commissioner Don Marble, one of Schweitzer’s new appointees, has been involved with the Montana Wind Working Group, and the Island Mountain Protectors, a group that serves as watchdog over the Zortman-Landusky mine near the Fort Belknap reservation. Another Schweitzer appointee, Bill Rossbach, served on local air and water pollution control boards in Missoula.
In contrast, Ward Shanahan, who held Marble’s spot on the board as its required government expert, spent 40 years of his life as a lobbyist for mining, railroad and industrial interests, according to his biography on the Gough, Shanahan, Johnson & Waterman law firm’s website.
Of course, these affiliations can’t be expected to tell the whole story. Reactions to the new board are perhaps more telling.
Hedges says the petitions by MEIC and NPRC didn’t have a chance with the last board, appointed by former governors Marc Racicot and Judy Martz.
“Which is why we didn’t propose them then,” she says.
Dustin Stewart, executive director of the Montana Mining Association, sees the new board in a less friendly light.
“From what I’ve seen so far, the board doesn’t appear to be open-minded at all,” Stewart says. “They don’t take science into consideration… they base their decisions on emotions and pictures.”
Stewart pointed specifically to the proposal to make mines meet state water quality standards within two years of closing.
He says that water at a given mine site may not meet state water quality standards before mining begins.
“It’s a thinly veiled attempt to shut down mining in Montana,” Stewart says.
Susan Brooke, appointed to the MERB six years ago by former Gov. Racicot, is also unhappy with the board’s new character. Brooke, a Bozeman resident, co-owns a KOA campground in East Glacier Park with her husband, Will Brooke, former chief of staff to Sen. Conrad Burns.
“It’s a lot different,” she says of the board now. “[Schweitzer] appointed core members that reflect his vision for Montana.”
Brooke believes the board is a powerful behind-the-scenes force in Montana politics. What the board does, she says, “can be perceived as law making. They can act as a mini-legislature. That kind of power always concerned me. [It’s] not an elected board.”
On Sept. 27, Brooke resigned from the review board. She says her main reason for doing so was to spend more time working for a school foundation in Bozeman, but that Schweitzer’s appointments also played a part.
It’s been “frustrating” to her that the board is revisiting coal bed methane after it set limits on the amount of sodium-containing water that could be discharged into rivers two years ago.
“We’ve already been down that road,” she says.
Brooke’s departure gives Schweitzer a chance to appoint a fifth board member and give his appointees decisive voting control of the panel. But Brooke says there was no reason for her to stay with the board.
“For me, I didn’t see the point, because it’s a majority rule.”
Board Chairman Russell, who also serves as Flathead County’s public health officer, was first appointed under Gov. Racicot and embraces the system that swept in the new board.
“The wonderful thing about the board is that newly elected governors get to appoint the majority,” he says.
“Is there a difference overall in the culture of the board?” Russell asks rhetorically. “Yes. This board is more questioning. They ask more questions in general. They may not take things at face value as much as the previous board.”
Hedges, who says she has always liked working with Russell, has another way of putting it.
“They’re not going to take the industry’s word for it,” she says.