Environmental Law in Crosshairs at Legislature

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – Industry proponents and environmentalists lined up Wednesday to fight over the first of two leading proposals that would tilt a key Montana environmental law in favor of development.

Both bills aim to revamp the Montana Environmental Policy Act, or MEPA, by limiting court review of agency decisions and making the law more procedural. They also aim to limit the potential review of non-Montana specific issues, like global warming, when considering development of coal or other resources.

Sen. Jim Keane, D-Butte, is carrying up the first of the proposals for legislative review. He said MEPA is unfairly constraining development. He criticized those who said the proposed changes would harm private property rights by making it hard for landowners to oppose unwanted development like gravel pits and power lines.

“That is what the opponents do, they try to muddy the water on this issue. The issue is we are not creating an environment for these jobs,” Keane said. “This bill is a bill that creates jobs in Montana.”

Supporters include extractive industries, contractors and labor interests who argue the changes are needed to spur development.

Landowners opposing the measure expressed concern over private property rights and said objecting to a major power line running over their land would be much harder under the proposed changes to MEPA.

Environmentalists said MEPA is rarely used to block projects, and mostly landowners have relied on the law recently in hopes of blocking development that would harm their property.

Environmentalists also argued that past efforts to weaken MEPA have not brought the jobs originally promised.

“MEPA is a critical public participation tool,” said Anne Hedges with the Montana Environmental Information Center.

Republican Sen. Chas Vincent of Libby said his bill to modify MEPA in a similar bill will be coming forward next week. He expects the Senate will fully consider both ideas before deciding which the GOP-led Legislature should send to the governor.

Gov. Brian Schweitzer has not said how he will respond to the bills. But in the past he has said there is nothing wrong with Montana’s environmental laws, and said he has been able to attract coal and gas and other companies to the state under the current system.

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