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Gov. Gianforte signs MEPA bill into law

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An aerial view of Chico Hot Springs near the base of Emigrant Peak. In 2020, the Park County Environmental Council and others stopped a gold mine proposed for Emigrant Gulch. PHOTO BY BILL CAMPBELL

SB 557’s sponsor and opponents say the bill will ‘probably’ incite lawsuits.

By Amanda Eggert MONTANA FREE PRESS

Gov. Greg Gianforte has signed a bill that makes significant changes to the Montana Environmental Policy Act, a law that’s used in legal challenges to mines, timber sales and power plants.

On May 19, Gianforte signed Senate Bill 557, which changes how individuals and nonprofits can use MEPA to challenge a state permit. Proponents of the measure say it will level the playing field and ensure that groups challenging natural resource and industrial projects first establish “legitimacy.” Opponents say it will turn MEPA into a paper exercise lacking consequences and institute a “pay-to-play” situation that will discourage litigation.

When MEPA was adopted by the Legislature in 1972, it enjoyed near-unanimous support at the Capitol. SB 557, in contrast, passed largely along party lines. All but four Republicans voted for SB 557; Democrats were unanimous in their opposition.

In addition to requiring a bond to cover lost revenue if a project is halted, the bill requires groups challenging state permits to seek a preliminary injunction, a tough-to-reach legal standard that would immediately halt a project.

Sen. Mark Noland, a Republican businessman from Bigfork, told Montana Free Press that he sponsored the measure after seeing his friends’ livelihoods impacted by timber sales that had been halted under MEPA. Challenges to hard rock mines and fossil fuel projects also worry him, he said. SB 557 would level the playing field, he added.

“The good Lord put this stuff here for us to use, as long as we use it carefully, responsibly, prudently,” he said. “There has to be a happy medium.”

During committee hearings on the bill, Noland referenced a particular project that had been stopped with MEPA-related litigation, an exploratory gold mine that Canadian company Lucky Minerals planned for Park County. Groups in Paradise Valley concerned about water quality, wildlife and economic impacts associated with the proposal successfully halted that project in 2020.

Colin Davis, the owner of Chico Hot Springs and a member of Park County Environmental Council, a plaintiff in that lawsuit, told MTFP this week that he was confused by Nolan’s assertion that SB 557 puts extractive industries on equal footing with local residents.

“It doesn’t level the playing field whatsoever,” Davis said. “It’s taking away our voice. There’s no question about it — it’s taking away the voice of the little person.”

Davis also said he finds the jobs argument an “empty battle cry” given the proliferation of jobs and small businesses in his area, many of which depend on the landscape tourists come to enjoy. 

“We should all have the ability to challenge the government,” he added, “no matter the party you’re from, no matter what the subject is.”

Noland said he thinks the newly signed law will probably be challenged. On this point he and Davis agree.

“I just can’t see it going any other way,” said Davis, adding that he’s steeling himself for the kind of fight he and other local businesses summoned to challenge the Lucky Minerals permit. 

“The amount of time and money we spent — planning and late-night meetings and going to D.C. … it triples the burden on our business,” Davis said.

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