Montana’s new DEQ, DNRC leaders set to begin regulatory rollbacks, hastened permitting
At a campaign event in July, candidate Greg Gianforte stood in the offices of Hecla Mining in Libby to rail against Montana’s state environmental regulatory agencies.
He labeled the departments of Environmental Quality and Natural Resources Conservation the “project prevention departments” and blamed the agencies for slowing economic growth. He pointed to the Montanore and Rock Creek mines, both of which have been in the permitting process for decades, as proof of a government out of touch with the business sector.
“I don’t think we should approve every permit, but we ought to be able to get a yes or no in less than 35 years,” Gianforte said.
Now, having cruised to a 12-point victory in November’s election, Gov. Gianforte has taken the first steps to reduce permitting times and state environmental regulations, naming new directors of the DEQ and DNRC. But former officials and environmental advocates caution that going too far in streamlining regulations and speeding permitting processes could have the opposite effect, exposing both industry and the state to lawsuits.
Amanda Kaster, a 31-year-old Pennsylvania native who was formerly the acting deputy assistant secretary for land and minerals management at the U.S. Department of the Interior will head the DNRC. Prior to her stint at the Interior Department she was acting chief of staff and senior adviser at the Bureau of Land Management, and has worked in the Office of Congressional and Legislative Affairs. She also worked as a legislative aide for former Montana U.S. Representative Ryan Zinke, and as an adviser for Zinke after his appointment as Secretary of the Interior.
Gianforte hired the new DEQ head from within the department, choosing Chris Dorrington, originally of Helena, who had been the administrator of the agency’s Air, Energy and Mining Division for almost five years. Before coming to work for DEQ, Dorrington spent 10 years at the Montana Department of Transportation.
Conservation groups have expressed both concern and surprise over the hirings — concern about Kaster’s inexperience in the state and history at the Interior Department under then-acting BLM Director William Perry Pendley, and surprise that Gianforte, after repeatedly attacking DEQ during his campaign, chose an agency insider to lead the department.
“It doesn’t make any sense,” said Anne Hedges, deputy director of the Montana Environmental Information Center, of Kaster’s hiring. “DNRC deals with unique issues, and to bring in someone who is really quite young and certainly inexperienced on anything related to Montana seems like folly.”
Kaster did not respond to requests for an interview.
The DNRC was created in 1971 to ensure responsible use of the state’s natural resources including coal, natural gas and timber. The agency is also responsible for overseeing the state’s water resources and water rights.
Whitney Tawney, the executive director of the nonprofit Montana Conservation Voters, expressed concern about Kaster’s record at the Interior Department. “As with any nominee, we’re going to give them a fair shake,” Tawney said. “Amanda Kaster’s most recent work at the U.S. Department of Interior is pretty troubling. She was deputy assistant secretary of land and minerals, and we watched hundreds of thousands of acres get opened up in Montana for oil and gas.”
In a press release announcing her hiring, Kaster said, “I can’t wait to get to work ensuring the Treasure State achieves its full potential by responsibly managing and developing its land and water resources and continuing efforts to make the Department responsive for all Montanans.”
“I was pleasantly surprised,” Hedges told Montana Free Press. “He is exactly the kind of person I would hope for in one of these positions.” Hedges said Dorrington’s familiarity with the agency and the law make him a good choice for the position.
“I think Chris Dorrington is a great choice. I don’t always agree with him by any means, but I do find him to be thoughtful, and he tries to figure out solutions to the problems presented to him,” she said.
Alan Olson, executive director of the Montana Petroleum Association and a member of the advisory team that helped Gianforte choose both departments’ directors, told MTFP, “I’ve worked with Chris for almost five years. He is accessible and willing to sit down and discuss the issues.”
It’s DEQ’s job to uphold the standards set by the state Constitution, which guarantees a clean and healthful environment for future generations, a job it achieves primarily through permitting.
The agency requires industries including logging and mining to apply for permits if the work is likely to affect the environment. The permits outline what can be done within the parameters of the law — how many trees can be cut, how much pollution is allowed in rivers — to ensure that that all actions are within the rule of environmental laws such as Montana’s Clean Air and Water Quality acts, mining and mine reclamation Laws and the Hazardous Waste Act. Local governments and municipalities must also get DEQ permits for things like stormwater runoff and wastewater.
It’s not only state laws that the DEQ has to take into account when issuing permits. The department is also the primary agency that implements federal environmental laws within the state.
Former state officials noted that efforts to streamline permitting do not change the requirements of the underlying laws. Streamlining that skirts those laws could leave state agencies, industries and communities open to litigation.
“If someone is seen as too cozy with industry in his or her interpretation of the law, conservationists are going to sue,” said Tracy Stone-Manning, vice president of the National Wildlife Federation and a former director of the Montana DEQ under Gov. Steve Bullock. Stone-Manning also served as Bullock’s chief of staff and directed the environmental nonprofit Clark Fork Coalition in the early 2000s.
Stone-Manning, who also expressed surprise over the Dorrington hire, said that Dorrington’s familiarity with the agency and the law put him in a good position to speed up processes while keeping remaining within the confines of the law.
“Director Dorrington will be able to be clear with the governor about why timelines are the way that they are, and what impediments there are to speeding them up, and some of those impediments are in statute,” she said.
Dorrington told MTFP he plans to align the agency with the expectations set by Gianforte, including streamlining permitting and improving the state’s interactions with businesses affected by agency actions.
“I think the governor uses our agency as an example of where streamlining is necessary and can be improved. I believe streamlining permitting will include clarity for the industry, and consistency that they can make economic decisions based off of,” he said.
Dorrington said he’s not worried about the process of streamlining permits or reducing regulations exposing the agency to lawsuits.
“We’re a part of lawsuits now. The bar for our agency is not simply set to not be sued,” he said.
Gianforte has made clear his intent to dramatically reduce state-level regulatory oversight. At the campaign stop in Libby, he pledged that for every regulation enacted while he is governor, he will repeal two others.
The Republican-led Legislature seems ready to help. In October, a memo reported by MTN News outlined proposed Republican goals for the upcoming legislative session. “Remove regulations from DEQ and DNRC” was listed as the No. 2 goal under the rubric of “Natural Resources.” The wish list doesn’t identify specific regulations to be cut.
Since the “draft blueprint” memo, attributed to state Rep. Derek Skees, R-Kalispell, and other unnamed Republican lawmakers, went public, eight bills have been requested by state legislators that would revise or change the Department of Environmental Quality, though none have yet been introduced.
One of Gianforte’s oft-cited examples of a DEQ permitting delay has in fact been hung up not at the agency, but in the courts.
The Montanore mine, a copper and silver mine in the Cabinet Mountains near Libby, recently suffered a major setback when the Montana Supreme Court sent its DEQ-approved permit back to the agency to reconsider.
The mine, originally owned by Canadian mining company Noranda Minerals, was first authorized to begin operations in 1989. Noranda dug a primary tunnel completed in 1991, but ceased operations that same year because of low mineral prices. While mining was discontinued, Noranda was granted a permit allowing pollutants in the water table in 1992, and a second permit for the mine was issued in 1997.
Permits for the dormant project continued to be reissued by DEQ after a new company bought the mine in 2004. Finally, in 2018, the Montana Environmental Information Center sued the DEQ and the new mining company, Montanore Minerals Corporations, a subsidiary of Washington-based Mines Management Inc., arguing that the latest permit, issued in 2017, was still applying outdated standards from the 25-year-old original permit. The court agreed, sending the permit back to DEQ for a re-do.
“Should the mine continue to seek the ability to discharge from its proposed mining operations, those discharges would need [to] be assessed under the state’s current nondegradation policy. At this time, DEQ has not been informed of how the mine wishes to proceed,” said Shaun McGrath, DEQ’s most recent director, who led the department when the permit was remanded.
Similarly, a Montana District Court in 2019 remanded a permit issued to the Rock Creek Mine back to the DNRC.
The Montanore project highlights another issue that plays out adjacent to the permitting process. Market demand for minerals and timber often change, sometimes delaying or shuttering mining and timber operations for lack of profitability, not lack of permitting. Still other times, as with Montanore, companies sell their assets or go belly-up before commencing operations.
“You can look at some of these 20-year processes and say, ‘the government failed there,’ but when you look under the hood you see companies coming and going, companies going bankrupt, companies putting projects on hold because they don’t have the capital to continue,” said Stone-Manning, the former DEQ director.
Permits issued to companies that may not be able to see projects through can have catastrophic and costly consequences, a result Montanans have seen before. When Pegasus Gold went bankrupt at the end of the 1990s, the company left behind mines leaching toxic chemicals into the environment, and left it to the state and federal governments to clean up the mess with taxpayer dollars. Just one of those mines, the open-pit Zortman-Landusky gold mine in the Little Rockies in north-central Montana, has generated more than $65 million in cleanup costs, a third of which is funded with public dollars.
In the lead-up to the election, and in his Montana Comeback Plan, Gianforte promised to “change the tone at the top” of the state’s environmental regulatory agencies, saying new leadership was needed for the benefit of the state’s economy. Now that Kaster and Dorrington have been installed to lead those agencies, those changes are in the works.
“Gov. Gianforte has set clear expectations, and my first step as director is to fully absorb his direction and set our own agency objectives, goals, strategies and measures in line with that direction,” Dorrington said.
This story originally appeared online at Montana Free Press and is republished here by permission.