The Last Act 

Montana’s premier environmental law inches toward demise

With a few exceptions, Republican forces stuck together in a Montana Senate vote Tuesday on a bill that would substantially weaken one of the state’s premier environmental laws.

To the delight of conservationists, Republicans Dale Mahlum of Missoula and John Bohlinger and Al Bishop of Billings broke ranks and went against the majority on a second-reading vote on House Bill 473, which labels the Montana Environmental Policy Act (MEPA) as solely a procedural law. Nonetheless, the bill passed by a 28-21 margin.

HB 473 opponents say the measure will largely prohibit state agencies from attaching many protective conditions on permits for mining, logging and oil and gas development. The bill is sponsored by Rep. Cindy Younkin (R-Bozeman). If deemed to be only procedural, the law has no teeth, detractors say.

“It boils down to whether MEPA should dictate an action or a process,” Younkin told a recent hearing.

The Senate considered several amendments that would strengthen the bill, but the Republican majority voted all but one down. Sen. Mike Halligan (D-Missoula) wanted to add a clause that would allow agencies to reject projects if they violated provisions of the Montana Constitution, especially the section guaranteeing citizens the right to a “clean and healthful environment.”

“The Montana Constitution does not say we have a right to a clean and healthful environment that trumps anything else,” Sen. Lorents Grosfield (R-Big Timber) argued in opposition. “We can’t go down that road. It’s way too broad.”

“I thought the Constitution was our legal background,” responded Sen. Jon Tester, a Big Sandy Democrat. “If it’s not, let’s get some amendments out here and trash that sucker.”

“It’s assumed that anything the Legislature passes complies with the Constitution,” Grosfield said, drawing a few knowing smiles from solons who know many of their laws are overturned by the courts.

“I find this amendment to be incredibly inappropriate,” said Senate Majority Leader Fred Thomas (R-Stevensville). “Follow the Constitution? Of course we should.” But the issue, he explained, is promoting more jobs in Montana, and that’s why HB 165 should pass unfettered.

Bishop, however, offered another amendment that said an agency can’t condition a development permit “unless endangerment of public health, safety or welfare or a significant impact on fish or wildlife resources would occur.” He also argued that his fellow Republicans should leave the law alone.

“What’s the problem with MEPA as it is?,” Bishop asked.

“I think this is a closed door to this state,” Thomas said of the law. “We need to open the door and let this process work.” It’s his hope, he said, that altering MEPA, which was enacted in 1971, will spur the state’s sputtering economy.

“If this thing goes through like this, you better kiss MEPA goodbye,” Bishop responded before his amendment was defeated on a 20-29 vote.

“It’s almost surrealistic,” Sen. Ken Toole (D-Helena) said of the anti-environmental tone of the current Legislature. He added that Montana has a long history of weakening resource protections and giving out corporate tax breaks without seeing economic gain.

Sen. Emily Stonington (D-Bozeman) pressed Grosfield to say where other state laws will cover the protections that are stripped away by HB 473, but he didn’t bite with specifics.

“It means we can’t control our future, but the company can control our future,” said Senate Minority Leader Steve Doherty (D-Great Falls), adding that Montana has been a corporate colony for too long.

Don’t tell your constituents that you “streamlined” or “modernized” MEPA, Doherty said to Republican backers of the bill. “You bulldozed it. You rip-rapped it. You blew it up. You took the heart and soul out of 30 years of Montana’s progression as a state.”

Sen. Mike Taylor (R-Proctor) accused Doherty of “polarizing” the issue.

“If we didn’t have MEPA, we’d be in line with our surrounding states,” which have more vibrant economies, he said, urging passage of the bill. “We will still have a healthy environment, but we will also have the opportunity to create higher wages.”

“Now, with this bill the way it is, you don’t have to talk about mitigation,” added Sen. Vicki Cocchiarella (D-Missoula). “What we’ve done is open the gap. I can’t vote for this. It goes too far.”

“This is not a repealer,” Grosfield said in trying to convince lawmakers that the changes in MEPA won’t be severe. “We have hindsight. We have learned.”

However, Gayla Benefield, a Libby resident who lost both her parents to asbestos-related diseases linked to the area’s now-closed W.R. Grace vermiculite mine, told the Senate Natural Resources Committee last week that she no longer trusts corporate America to do what’s right.

“I was wrong, way wrong,” Benefield says of her past beliefs that businesses strive to protect workers and the environment. “We’re living and gasping fools in Libby.

“One victim is too many,” she said. “One thousand victims could be considered corporate homicide.”

Before casting his vote in favor of the bill, Sen. William Crismore (R-Libby) said he would work to kill the measure if he thought it would cause more suffering from wayward asbestos. A third and final vote on the bill was scheduled Wednesday.

“We’re just glad there are three branches of government,” Montana Environmental Information Center lobbyist Anne Hedges said after the Senate action. She expects the judicial branch to be busy soon.

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