HELENA (AP) - Two bills intended to make the state's environmental appeals process easier for industrial developers are expected to make it to the Senate floor this week after undergoing a number of changes in committee.
Rep. Alan Olson, R-Roundup, who is sponsoring one of the measures, said the recent changes to his House Bill 437 were made to address concerns raised by opponents while still helping industry avoid costly delays in projects whose permits are challenged.
''I think people need the right to comment (on project permits), but sometimes it just seems like there are certain organizations that carry it too far,'' he said.
But opponents of HB437 and House Bill 700, sponsored by Rep. John Brueggeman, R-Polson, say the amendments have not improved the bills, and say they are still unnecessary attack on citizens' rights to appeal state permits for industrial plants.
''It is designed to strictly benefit industry attorneys, and everybody else be damned,'' Anne Hedges, policy director for the Montana Environmental Information Center, said of HB437.
That bill received broad support from industry and labor groups. Heavily amended in the Senate Natural Resources Committee, it sets new requirements on those challenging state-issued permits for industrial projects. Among other changes, the bill would require that such challenges be filed in a court in the same county where the project is proposed. Any legal challenge of a permit on constitutional grounds must first challenge the constitutionality of the law used to issue the permit.
Amendments to the bill also would require that if any permit for a project worth more than $1 million is challenged in court, the case takes precedence over any other civil case before that court.
The bill also makes the changes retroactive to any challenges under way when the bill passes.
Hedges said such legal hurdles for someone appealing a permit invites even more legal action and more convoluted cases.
Under current law, only a few such permits are appealed, and the groups or citizens filing the appeals often negotiate a settlement, she said.
Olson said his bill attempts to give developers some assurance that if they follow the law and obtain a permit, the project won't be delayed indefinitely by appeals.
Brueggeman said a key portion of his HB700 is based on the same premise.
HB700, amended slightly by the Senate committee last week, requires that an administrative appeal of an air-quality permit no longer automatically ''stays'' or delays awarding of the permit while the appeal is resolved.
Instead, the Board of Environmental Review could order a delay if it finds the appeal might succeed or if the appellant shows that ''irreparable injury'' would occur if the permit-holder proceeds with the project.