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The Montana Department of Environmental Quality is returning to the federal government a program to fight haze in national parks and wilderness areas because financial support from the Environmental Protection Agency is inadequate.

DEQ Director Richard Opper announced the decision in a memo Friday, saying the department is being forced to take this action.

"This is a very regrettable situation," Opper said in a statement Tuesday. "The trend of increasing air-quality program requirements and stagnant funding is not sustainable. Something has to give, and it is simply time for the states, including Montana, to 'just say no' to the feds."

Opper said the regulatory demands imposed on states by the federal government over the past decade "have made it impossible" for Montana to fulfill a federal requirement to develop a plan for protecting visibility in national parks and wilderness in Montana by December 2007.

"While I do not enjoy relinquishing any activities of the air program, I am forced to take action to protect Montana's core program elements," the director said in his memo.

Staff working on protecting visibility in national parks and wilderness areas were reassigned Tuesday to regulatory programs affecting public health.

Montana's decision took EPA's regional office in Denver by surprise, Rich Mylott, an agency media officer, said Tuesday. EPA is trying to learn more before issuing a response, he said.

Under a regional haze rule adopted by EPA, states must develop by December 2007 plans to cut pollution that reduced visibility in 156 designated natural areas. In Montana, those areas include Glacier and Yellowstone national parks and wildlife refuges. These state plans would require certain plants to install pollution controls to comply with the rule. The pollution control equipment applies to plants built between 1962 and 1977 and plants that have the potential to emit more than 250 tons of haze-causing pollution, such as particulates, sulfur dioxide and oxides of nitrogen.

Opper's memo said the anticipated effects of more proposed federal rules will "draw us closer to a disastrous tipping point."

Since 2002, EPA has required Montana to develop and adopt regulations addressing reform of the New Source Review program, consolidated emissions reporting, mercury emissions, regional haze and pollution control technology standards, Opper said.

In response, Montana has proposed "many workable solutions" to regulate and track emissions in ways that "maximize scarce state resources while protecting the health of Montanans," Opper said. "EPA has not supported our efforts to streamline our workload in ways that do not sacrifice protection."

Robert Habeck, of DEQ's air resources management bureau, said the bureau has a severe staff shortage with seven full-time positions vacant in an office of about 25 people. Staff shortage is the "compounding factor" with federal regulatory requirements, he said.

The agency has 385 applications for oil and gas air permits sitting in a box awaiting attention, Habeck said. Reassigned staff will start tackling those permits, he said.

"When you sit around the table and look at your plate, and look at regulatory programs, it was very easy to say protecting public health was our goal," Habeck said.

Other states have grumbled about the nationwide regional haze program; the state of Washington returned it to EPA two years ago, Habeck said.

DEQ's work so far on the regional haze program has identified 10 sources that may be eligible for additional pollution controls, Habeck said. Those sources are Asarco in East Helena, Columbia Falls Aluminum Co., PPL power plants in Colstrip and Billings, Montana Sulphur & Chemical Co. in Billings, Holcim Inc.'s cement plan in Three Forks, Ash Grove Cement Co. in Helena, Smurfitt Stone Container in Missoula, CHS refinery in Laurel and the ExxonMobil refinery in Billings.

DEQ will share its information with EPA, Habeck said.

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