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The Need for Speed Questioned in MT

April 2, 2009

Helena, MT – A bill to fast-track environmental permits for energy projects in Montana is on its way to the governor, but more than a dozen citizen and conservation groups are raising a caution flag, questioning the need for speed. They say that in the name of "streamlining" the process, the bill limits citizen rights to appeal government permits regulating pollution.

Northern Plains Clean Energy Task Force chair Mary Fitzpatrick calls Montana the speediest state in the nation for air quality permits already. She says what the bill really does is cut out the voice of the public, a move she calls "unconstitutional."

"Citizens in the United States have the right to petition the government. That's a constitutional right; it's also a Montana right. And we also have the right to a clean and healthful environment."

The sponsor of HB 483 says citizen appeals result in expensive and lengthy court cases. However, Fitzpatrick says if the governor signs the bill, the new law will not speed up the process because constitutional questions will likely still have to be resolved by the courts.

Backers of the bill also accuse citizen appeals of holding up too many projects, but Fitzpatrick says a review of the facts shows that appeals are rare and come from project developers and companies themselves just as often as from citizens. And she points to landowner rights that could be trampled by a fast-track of a new transmission line, or even a gravel pit.

"All of these involve property rights, where landowners have to be able to appeal to have a permit modified to protect their use of the land."

Montana Conservation Voters, Montana Audubon and Montana Trout Unlimited are some of the citizen groups voicing concerns about the bill.

Deb Courson, Public News Service - MT