Depleting MEPA 

Industry bills pick away at Montana’s top environmental law

The battle over two of the state’s major environmental laws is heating up as legislators begin their final review of industry-backed changes pushed by Republican lawmakers.

At issue are the Montana Environmental Policy Act, or MEPA, and the Major Facility Siting Act, which governs the placement of most electrical generating plants, transmission lines and industrial pipelines.

Prior to last month’s transmittal deadline, when most non-budget bills had to be moved from one chamber to the other, the Legislature approved all five MEPA-related measures drawn up by the Western Environmental Trade Association (WETA), a consortium of timber, mining and other extractive industries. While some of the bills enjoyed bipartisan support, the most significant legislation was largely passed on party-line votes.

“MEPA is not some kind of absolute god out there that determines whether Montana is livable or clean or not,” says Rep. Doug Mood, a Seeley Lake Republican who is leading efforts to change the statute. “It’s the substantive laws that do that, not MEPA.”

“It takes too long and it costs too much,” WETA head Don Allen says of the law. “That’s why we’re trying to get the process to work.” Most troubling to conservation leaders are House Bill 473—which defines MEPA as a procedural law instead of a legal dictate governing protection of the state’s land, air and water—Mood’s HB 459, and Senate Bill 377; together the measures impose tight timelines for environmental reviews, give permit applicants broader control over the review process, allow the state to ignore cumulative impacts, and use economic feasibility as a main criteria for determining what protections are put into place. Also on the activist radar is SB 376, a move to exempt some state agency actions from MEPA rules.

Conservationists say the proposals are an all-out assault on the law, which requires that formal assessments or impact statements be completed before most development can take place.

Included under MEPA’s umbrella, among other activities, are state timber sales, permitting for various air and water degradation permits, various subdivision reviews, solid and hazardous waste disposal, water and sewer projects, fish and game transplants, related commercial ventures, and oil and gas permits.

“Our critics like it because they can use it to stop timber sales,” Montana Wood Products Association chief Cary Hegreberg told a recent committee hearing. “We don’t like it.”

A main point of contention stems from a November 2000 report from the Legislative Environmental Quality Council (EQC), a bipartisan panel that looked at MEPA and concluded no major changes were needed in the law. But Allen, Mood, and others contend the council didn’t deal with a number of contentious matters and that legislative remedies are now needed.

“I think there were some very good statistics that came out of the MEPA study, but [the panel] did not reach consensus on the most controversial issues,” Mood says. “It wasn’t designed to do that.”

But Jeff Barber, a lobbyist for the Montana Wildlife Federation and the Missoula-based Clark Fork Coalition, argues that the council heard industry’s arguments and rejected them as being invalid. Instead of accepting the verdict, WETA and other industrial interests persuaded the Legislature’s top anti-environmentalists to introduce measures to gut the law.

“The issues they are raising are not legitimate issues,” Barber says. “They brought it before the EQC and they were found to be wrong. These bills aren’t going to change anything [industry] wants to change,” and the processing of permits and reviews could be slowed by increased litigation if the proposals are approved.

Barber says he’s especially concerned about Rep. Cindy Younkin’s HB 473 because it undermines the state’s authority to regulate a broad array of environmental degradation, including the control of cancer-causing asbestos at vermiculite mines across the state. The Bozeman Republican, saying she was “having a bad day,” refused to discuss her legislation on Monday.

“After 18 months of study, it’s almost as if we just wasted our time,” says House Minority Leader Kim Gillan, a Billings Democrat and EQC vice chair. “There’s a disconnect between what we found in the study and what these bills do. I’m puzzled by the bills and the justifications for these changes.”

A prime Republican argument for changing MEPA rests on providing more jobs and income for the state’s flagging economy. But conservationists, including former Republican Rep. George Darrow, who sponsored the original law, say that contention is false.

“There’s absolutely nothing wrong with it,” Darrow says of MEPA. “That’s nonsense. To allege that a minute segment of our workforce is holding up the economy is a strange assertion. To think they can somehow increase that workforce enough to provide enough jobs to offer any economic opportunities of consequence for the state, it’s simply not there.”

“To me, the whole thing is an effort to divert attention from failed economic policies and a dive to the sewer economically,” adds Senate Minority Leader Steve Doherty (D-Great Falls). “There’s no sense to it. It’s a political bait-and-switch, and worst of all, it’s a cruel hoax that changing any of Montana’s bedrock environmental laws will do anything to improve our economic plight.”

Meanwhile, a Republican dream has come true regarding the siting act. Rep. Gary Forrester, a Billings Democrat who eked out a narrow victory last fall in a traditional GOP district, has agreed to sponsor SB 319 in the House. The measure strips out most new generating plants from segregated review. Forrester, crossing party lines, also has voted in favor of the major anti-MEPA bills. “The Democratic tent is very big and broad,” Gillan says of the obvious political embarrassment.

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