HELENA, Mont. - Gayla Benefield says she used to trust corporations. But not anymore.

"I was wrong, way wrong," the Libby, Mont., resident told a Senate committee at the Montana state capital. "We're living and gasping fools in Libby."

Benefield was speaking of the W.R. Grace vermiculite mine at Libby, in the northwestern corner of the state. There, wayward asbestos has been linked to scores of deaths, and still threatens the health of hundreds of former workers and their families (HCN, 3/13/00: Libby's dark secret).

"One victim is too many," says Benefield, who lost both parents to asbestos-related diseases. "One thousand victims could be considered corporate homicide."

But Benefield was not here to tear down W.R. Grace. The Democrat and homemaker was here to defend Montana's powerful and far-reaching environmental law, the Montana Environmental Policy Act, or MEPA (HCN, 12/6/99: Decision may help a granddaddy keep its teeth). Republican lawmakers are poised to enact major changes to MEPA, and Benefield is concerned that the changes will leave other communities vulnerable to the kind of catastrophe she's seen in Libby.

So far this session, legislators have given preliminary approval to six measures that significantly affect MEPA. While some have enjoyed bipartisan support, the most onerous have been jammed through by hard-line, pro-business Republicans. Republican lawmakers, backed by new Republican Gov. Judy Martz, say new industry won't come to the state unless environmental regulations are scaled back, boiled down and made "reasonable."

Martz has even said she's proud to be a "lap dog" for industry - if that means creating good-paying jobs and pulling Montana out of the economic cellar. Her motto: "Montana is open for business."

Democrats such as Senate Minority Leader Steve Doherty, D-Great Falls, argue that Republican mismanagement, the global economy and an unwillingness to embrace new ideas are responsible for Montana's economic hard times, not environmental laws. "There's no sense to it," he says. "It's a political bait-and-switch, and worst of all, it's a cruel hoax that changing any of Montana's bedrock environmental laws will do anything to improve our economic plight."

"This is the toughest session on the environment that we've seen for years," adds Anne Hedges, a lobbyist with the Helena-based Montana Environmental Information Center.

A barrage of bills

MEPA, fashioned after the National Environmental Policy Act, requires that state agencies complete assessments or impact statements before they approve many kinds of development. Among the projects governed by the law are state timber sales, air and water pollution permits, major subdivisions, solid and hazardous waste disposal, municipal water and sewer projects, oil and gas permits, fish and wildlife transplants and game farms.

Because there are gaps in substantive state law, conservationists say MEPA serves both procedural and substantive purposes. In plain English, if MEPA is a procedural law, it only implements the components of other state laws. If it is substantive, it can be used to set permit conditions that are not spelled out elsewhere.

This distinction is at the heart of the bill that would do the most fundamental damage to MEPA. The bill, sponsored by Republican Rep. Cindy Younkin, a Bozeman attorney, would designate MEPA as a solely procedural statute.

If the bill, which has already passed the House, is signed into law, mining and logging companies, developers and oil drillers will have fewer restrictions attached to their projects. That's because state agencies will lose their authority to request an array of environmental safeguards - all the way from protecting elk calving grounds to keeping mine haul roads away from schools - because they're not guaranteed by other laws. And because Montana has no ambient air standards for asbestos, Libby's Gayla Benefield says Younkin's bill could allow other vermiculite mines to create a new legacy of lung disease.

This bill, and four others which have received preliminary approval in the Legislature, were drawn up by a statewide industry group. The Western Environmental Trade Association, or WETA, is a consortium of timber, mining and manufacturing interests.

"Our critics like (MEPA) because they can use it to stop timber sales," Montana Wood Products Association chief Cary Hegreberg told one legislative panel. "When all else fails, they file a lawsuit. We don't like it."

"It takes too long and it costs too much," adds WETA head Don Allen. "That's why we're trying to get the process to work."

Other bills sponsored by Rep. Doug Mood, R-Seeley Lake, and Sen. Duane Grimes, R-Clancy, impose tighter timelines for environmental reviews, give companies broader control over the review process, allow the state to ignore cumulative impacts and to use economic feasibility as a main criteria for determining what alternatives are studied. Another bill would exempt many state agency actions from MEPA rules.

Arguments don't add up

Most irksome for MEPA supporters is that the proposed changes fly in the face of a recent bipartisan review of the law. The 1999 Legislature ordered its Environmental Quality Council to conduct a comprehensive review of MEPA, and in a report released last fall, the panel concluded no major changes were needed.

But sponsors of the bills contend the council ignored several contentious matters, and now legislative remedies are needed to satisfy industry desires. Democrats - and even a few Republicans - are on the defensive. Most, if not all, of the bills have good chances of passing the legislature, and Gov. Martz seems willing to sign anything that makes it to her desk.

"After 18 months of study, it's almost as if we just wasted our time," says House Minority Leader Kim Gillan, a Billings Democrat and vice chairwoman of the study panel. "There's a disconnect between what we found in the study and what these bills do." She also notes that a recent statewide poll indicates 65 percent of Montanans want environmental regulations left alone.

Regarding the state's sagging economy, Gillan says Republicans have been stripping environmental laws and giving corporate tax breaks for the past 12 years, and things just keep getting worse. Conservationists, including former Rep. George Darrow, the Billings Republican who sponsored the original Montana Environmental Policy Act, label the current GOP's economic arguments absurd.

"There's absolutely nothing wrong with it," Darrow says of the MEPA law. "That's nonsense. I think they're really way off base and operating on misguided information. The great clamor is that Ôthe state is open for business.' But let's ask, 'What business?' "

The author writes from Helena, Mont.

You can contact ...

  • The Montana State Legislature, 406/444-4800, in session until April 24;
  • The Western Environmental Trade Association, 33 S. Last Chance Gulch, Helena, MT 59601 (406/443-5541);
  • The Montana Wood Products Association, 2027 11th Ave., Helena, MT 59601, (406/443-1566);
  • The Montana Environmental Information Center, P.O. Box 1184, Helena, MT 59624, (406/443-2520).

Copyright © 2001 HCN and Ron Selden