Laura Lundquist

(Missoula Current) On Thursday, Governor Greg Gianforte announced that Director Chris Dorrington would be leaving the Montana Department of Environmental Quality to become the new director of the Montana Department of Transportation.

“Chris Dorrington is a changemaker,” Gianforte said in a release. “Bringing his previous experience at the agency and exceptional ability to lead, I have total confidence in him as he takes the reins at MDT. I appreciate his willingness to serve in this new capacity after his successful tenure at DEQ.”

Former MDT director Mack Long retired on March 22 after Gianforte assigned him in January 2021 to lead the department under the new administration. Larry Flynn has served as the interim MDT director since March.

Gianforte chose Dorrington to lead DEQ starting in January 2021 after Dorrington had been the chief of DEQ’s Air, Energy and Mining Division for four-and-a-half years. Prior to that, Dorrington had worked in the Department of Transportation for a decade as the Planning Division chief. He holds a master’s degree in Transportation Policy, Operations and Logistics from George Mason University, according to the governor’s press release.

“I am grateful to Governor Gianforte for this new opportunity. While I have enjoyed my time at DEQ, right now I can make the biggest difference at MDT, where I first started my career,” Dorrington said in the release.

Dorrington leaves DEQ at a time when a number of environmental issues are in flux.

Prompted partly by a judge’s ruling in the recent youth climate change lawsuit, Held v. Montana, a DEQ working group is struggling to develop recommendations for if or how the department should clarify the state’s interpretation of the Montana Environmental Policy Act, which deals with public participation in proposed state projects and policy.

Another working group is trying to establish how DEQ should implement a 2021 Legislative mandate to use narrative instead of numerical standards to regulate the amount of nutrients - nitrogen and phosphorus compounds - that are released into state waters. Wastewater facilities, septic fields, fertilizers and mining operations all contribute nutrients that can cause algae to spread throughout lakes and rivers, robbing them of oxygen and destroying aquatic habitat.

In addition, several recent lawsuits have been filed challenging a legislative change to the open-pit mining permit process, which is allowing operators to open gravel pits in areas that could have been denied prior to 2021. But now, DEQ is allowed only a matter of days to review and approve applications, leaving it to Montana residents to challenge the validity of some pits.

With DEQ trying to juggle these and other environmental issues while headed into an election season, Sonja Nowakowski will take over as DEQ director. Nowakowski has worked under Dorrington as DEQ’s Division Administrator of Air, Energy, and Mining since 2021. Prior to 2021, she spent 15 years with the Legislative Services Division where she spent five years working specifically on natural resources and energy policy.

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