HELENA — A quartet of bills to revamp and rewrite Montana's environmental and mining laws rolled through the state Senate Wednesday, as majority Republicans said it's time to pave the way for new natural-resource jobs.

"They want a predictable process ... to find a way so that we actually can go out and build these big projects," Sen. Bruce Tutvedt, R-Kalispell, said of the state's natural-resource industries, which support the measures. "That's what we need to do."

On mostly party-line votes with Republicans in favor — although a few senators crossed party lines both for and against — the Senate endorsed two bills that narrow the scope of the state's signature environmental law, the Montana Environmental Policy Act (MEPA).

The Senate also endorsed a bill relaxing a 1998 voter-approved ban on open pit gold mines that use cyanide to process the ore, and another measure that streamlines the permitting process for metal mines.

All four bills face final Senate votes Thursday before heading to the House.

Democrats opposed to the measures said the bills erode environmental protections at the behest of industry, with no guarantee that new jobs will be created.

Sen. Dave Wanzenried, D-Missoula, noted that industry forces were behind a 2001 rewrite of the Montana Environmental Policy Act and are back again 10 years later with yet another revamping of the law.

"This is not some sort of sidewalk, pedestrian change," he said of Senate Bill 317, sponsored by Sen. Chas Vincent, R-Libby. "This is a massive restructuring of the law that industry said it wanted (in 2001). ...

"My question is, is this it? Is this the one industry actually wants? Do we have it right this time, or are we going to be back again the next time, and the next time and the next time?"

SB317, one of legislative Republicans' major bills this session, substantially changes MEPA, a 40-year-old law that requires the state to review any major "state action," such as an air or water permit, for its environmental impacts.

Industry officials have complained that environmental groups and others often use the MEPA review process to delay projects they oppose.

Vincent's bill extensively rewrites MEPA, adding language that says that natural-resource development is beneficial and directs the state to favorably analyze a project's economic benefits as well as its environmental impacts.

It also narrows information the state can consider and how projects may be stopped by court action.

Vincent insisted his bill does not gut MEPA or eliminate any environmental review — but conceded that industry was closely involved in preparing SB317.

"They're the ones who provide the jobs, guys," he said to fellow senators. "The people in my county have 18 percent unemployment. We would love to have some industry. ... We are creating more predictability in the process so we can encourage venture capitalists to come and invest in this state, invest in those industries to create jobs."

The Senate endorsed Vincent's bill on a 27-23 vote.

The Senate also voted 30-20 to endorse another MEPA change — sponsored by a Democrat, Sen. Jim Keane of Butte.

Keane's SB233 also narrows the scope of MEPA review and says if a lawsuit challenges a MEPA review of a project as inadequate, a court cannot halt construction of the project.

Keane said that while legal action involving MEPA may be rare, he believes it has impeded major projects in the past.

"I believe this bill will help create jobs so people like me can have workers to represent," said Keane, a longtime union official. "This bill does not stop any of the review of MEPA. It adjusts what the law does in a fair and balanced matter."

Sen. Christine Kaufmann, D-Helena, noted that the two MEPA bills contain vast differences, and asked Vincent how he planned to resolve them, if both passed.

Vincent said he expected the House to examine how it might meld the two bills together.

The Senate also voted 29-21 for a bill changing the 1998 voter-passed initiative banning any future open-pit, cyanide heap-leach gold and silver mines.

SB306 allows new open-pit gold or silver mines, if they can take their ore to either of Montana's existing heap-leach mines in southwest Montana for processing.

Opponents assailed the bill as a slap in the face to Montana voters who approved the ban and upheld it again in 2004, saying new mines still have the potential to create costly cleanups and pollution.

"If the taxpayers have to come back and clean up the mess after it's over, I don't think those are good jobs and I don't think that's good policy," said Sen. Jim Shockley, R-Victor. "I think it's short-sighted."

Supporters argued that the measure will create jobs — and that's what voters want the Legislature to do.

"I know that some people don't like the idea of the ground being torn up and holes being dug, but this is Montana — that's what we do," said Sen. Dave Lewis, R-Helena. "We're not living in a national park; we're living in a place that needs jobs."

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