HELENA – The House is rejecting the governor’s proposed changes for the horse slaughter bill even though the Environmental Protection Agency says it and another bill could cause problems for the state.
Lawmakers on Wednesday rejected the governor’s amendments for House Bill 418 on a 59-41 vote. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Ed Butcher, R-Winifred, will now move to the Senate, which is also likely to buck the governor’s amendments.
In its original form, Butcher’s bill would have erected barriers to lawsuits directed at preventing a horse slaughter facility from operating in the state.
Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer struck those key provisions and sent it back to the Legislature last week, arguing that it would have set too many limits on the public’s right to appeal permits over environmental concerns.
It now turns out that Schweitzer received a letter from the EPA on March 25 expressing a similar concern about the restrictions on permit appeals built into HB 418 — as well as appeal limits built into a centerpiece GOP bill to speed up permits for energy projects in the state.
The EPA letter says House Bill 483, sponsored by Rep. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, could impact whether state programs meet federal approval requirements.
In particular, the letter states the bill may set impediments to public challenges of air and water-quality permits that run contrary to requirements under the Clean Air and Water Acts.
In a footnote, the federal agency also notes it has some of the same concerns with Butcher’s bill, which requires challengers to post a bond worth 20 percent of a slaughterhouse’s construction costs.
Jones’ bill, which seeks to streamline permitting for energy projects such as a coal-fired power plant, has passed the Legislature and now awaits action by Schweitzer. The governor has not said whether he will sign or veto the legislation, but he has met with Jones to discuss the bill.
Jones said the EPA correspondence is a “boilerplate” letter that is commonly sent out in response to energy legislation. He also said a lawyer has looked at the agency’s concerns and found they should not be a problem for his bill, because it only limits appeals that are found to be “deleterious.”
The EPA said the letter was not common but not unusual. Agency spokesmen also said it was not written to interfere with the legislative process, but rather to provide facts.
“What we’re trying to point out to the governor is that the bill changes whatever playing field the state had when it was empowered to enforce federal law,” said Eddie Sierra, an EPA administrator.
States have authority to enforce compliance with federal laws about air and water quality only as long as the EPA finds their statutes meet federal requirements.
The governor’s office did not comment on the specific concerns raised in the letter, which is the only one of its kind received this session, but said they have no more weight than other comments received.
“We give that letter the same concern we give all letters and comments on consideration,” said Sarah Elliott, spokeswoman for the governor.
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