Montana is poised to loosen environmental regulations


HELENA, Mont. - Citing steadily declining jobs in traditional industries such as mining, logging and energy development, Montana is preparing to change its environmental regulations to make them more favorable to business.

The efforts are the most ambitious by any state to speed the process of obtaining construction and operating permits, and they have set off an old-fashioned fight between environmentalists and business interests.

But both sides agree on one thing: The state's actions have taken on added force and importance in light of President Bush's promise to review the Clinton administration's environmental policies and the willingness of Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton to let the states assume more power to regulate themselves.

"The concept is not new, but I haven't seen other states do something as comprehensively as Montana," said Paula Carrell, state program director for the Sierra Club.

The changes proposed for Montana, in at least eight bills being drafted, have the support of the new governor, Judy Martz, a Republican, and Republican leaders of the Legislature, who say the Republican majority in both chambers almost assures passage of the bills.

In particular, two state laws are under review, the Montana Environmental Policy Act and the Montana Major Facility Siting Act, which regulates the construction and operation of power plants. Both laws are nearly 30 years old.

For example, some permits could be granted after 90 days of review rather than a year. Another change under consideration before the Legislature would allow the state to issue a permit after the 90-day deadline even if all environmental reviews had not been completed.

"State agencies will be forced to act prior to having all the information they need," said Anne Hedges of a watchdog group.

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