County dodges bullet on air quality bill 

A bad air bill

Missoula can still enact air quality rules stricter than those set at the state or federal level, but thanks to the Missoula Area Chamber of Commerce, it now has several more bureaucratic hoops to jump through first.

House Bill 605, sponsored by Rep. Doug Mood (R-Seeley Lake) at the request of the Missoula Chamber of Commerce, would have prohibited local air pollution control boards from enacting rules more stringent than state or federal law without first meeting a host of procedural requirements. Two versions of that bill have passed the Montana House and Senate already, but because they differ considerably, they were sent to a conference committee last week, where local health departments and air quality boards were able to remove the wording they found most objectionable.

“I’m definitely relieved to get the worst parts of it out,” says Ellen Leahy, director of the Missoula Health Department. The bill was opposed by the county Health Department, Mayor Mike Kadas, some members of City Council and every local air quality district in the state.

Had the bill not been amended, says Leahy, health departments and air quality boards around Montana would have had serious constraints placed on their ability to manage air pollution at the local level. In effect, every local air quality rule enacted in the last five years would have been subject to challenge and repeal.

“I think it’s very interesting that the Chamber industry committee, which works under the regulations that are the same as state regulations, wanted to interfere with regulations that have nothing to do with industry, such as wood stoves, de-icers, and open burning,” says Leahy.

But supporters of the bill contend that it’s designed to improve the level of public participation in drafting air quality rules and provide business with relief from regulations that they say are oftentimes conflicting, confusing and costly. Some industry representatives have argued that they are often not even told about new regulations until after they’re enacted.

Leahy says that much of what HB 605 would mandate the health department does already, such as maintaining an interested-parties list to inform citizens and businesses about newly proposed regulations, and providing a written justification for why the new rules are necessary.

“You’ve already got more process to go through for air rules than for anything else,” says Leahy. “So now you’ve got even more process, some of which is confusing.”

She says that at least one section of the bill, which deals with an appeals or public hearing process, is unclear and ambiguously worded, and will likely require an interpretation by the county attorney.

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