HELENA — A Senate panel Wednesday heard one of the session's first major bills to amend the Montana Environmental Policy Act, with industry and labor lining up to say the changes can help speed and encourage new mining and other natural-resource projects in the state.

"This bill is a bill for the future," said Sen. Jim Keane, D-Butte, the sponsor of Senate Bill 233. "If we'd passed this bill three sessions ago, we'd be a hell of a lot better off, because we'd have some of these projects."

Keane's bill would make several changes to MEPA, a 40-year-old state law that requires state agencies to analyze the environmental impacts of "state actions," such as issuing permits for mines and other natural-resource projects.

Supporters of SB233 told the Senate Natural Resources Committee that the most important change is preventing a court from delaying a project, even if the court finds that the MEPA review was inadequate.

SB233 says the court can require the state agency to fix the environmental review, but if the project has a permit, it can still go forward.

"The permit stays valid through that process," said Leo Berry, a Helena attorney representing Great Northern Properties, which owns 16 billion tons of coal reserves in Montana. "That's really the key to moving us forward.

"If (someone) thinks a permit is approved improperly, they can still sue. They just can't use the impact analysis to tie these projects up."

Mining, oil-and-gas, timber, organized labor and construction interests spoke in favor of the bill.

Opponents of SB233, primarily environmental and conservation groups, said this change essentially removes any remedy for those who feel the state analysis made mistakes and didn't properly assess impacts to their property.

"Even if an agency didn't do what it was supposed to do ... there's no remedy for those people," said Anne Hedges, program director for the Montana Environmental Information Center. "This bill takes away people's rights to protect themselves when their government doesn't."

Hedges also said it's a myth that MEPA is a "job-killing" measure, because it rarely leads to lawsuits.

Bob Lane, the chief counsel for the state Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, also said he sees potential problems with SB233's changes that restrict what the state can analyze when it does an environmental review of a project.

For example, if the agency can't consider impacts outside Montana's border — which SB233 prohibits — that could prevent the state from making arguments to keep animal species off the Endangered Species list within Montana borders, he said.

Environmental groups say MEPA is a public-participation law that informs people of impacts of projects, giving them a chance to comment on and know what's being built near their home.

Yet industry has complained for years about the law, saying it is used by environmental groups to block projects they don't like, by saying the MEPA review was inadequate.

"Here we go again, trying to amend the Montana economic strangulation act," said Cary Hegreberg, executive director of the Montana Contractors Association. "MEPA has been hailed as 'look before you leap' law. (Instead) it has been implemented to 'look under every pebble until you find something that you can file a lawsuit over.'"

The Senate panel took no immediate action on the bill.

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