Halfway Report – Montana 2021 Legislative Session

The last week before the Montana Legislature’s midway recess was crazier than a bull in a china shop.  Not only did an unprecedented number of dirty water bills come back from the dead, but so too did meetings and last-minute hearings continue until the buzzer.

The last week in February is traditionally the final opportunity to submit a bill to committee before transmittal break, the unofficial halfway point in the Legislative Session, and a deadline for all but a few special categories of bills.

In our previous update we shared a number of dirty water bills that were sadly gaining traction in committees, from HB 481 (which would duplicate existing criminal penalties for disrupting ‘critical infrastructure’ and allow harsh felony and punitive damages) to SB 358 (repealing numeric nutrient criteria that protect Montana’s rivers from unhealthy nutrient pollutions), to HB 164 (weakening groundwater pollution limits for nitrates, threatening drinking water supplies, pregnant women, and aquatic life across fast-growing river valleys).

Here’s a down-and-dirty summary of remaining bad bills that we oppose and are tracking.

  • HB 481: This bill would create a special category of legal protection for so-called “critical infrastructure” for energy projects and impose severe felony charges and draconian fines on anyone who trespasses on or disrupts infrastructure.  A knee-jerk reaction to citizen activism and peaceful opposition across the Nation protesting dirty projects like Keystone XL, this bill duplicates existing criminal law already prohibiting unlawful vandalism, would penalize a rancher whose tractor hits a pipeline on his own property, and runs afoul of First Amendment protections in terms of Free Speech and Freedom of Expression.
    • Equally worrisome is companion language in the bill that would make nonprofits “guilty by association” and level fines as high as 1.5 million dollars against a “conspirator” organization that allegedly supports environmental activism.  The language is vague, dangerous, and designed to intimidate organizations from engaging with issues about energy infrastructure.
  • SB 358:  This bill was assigned a committee, given a hearing, and got tabled, all within one day. Whew!  Sadly this bill did in fact rise from the ashes and breathes again, and represents a direct threat to science-based protection of our keynote waterways.  SB 358 would wholesale remove decades of scientific evidence and rules that limit the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus pollution most western Montana waterways can accept and remain healthy.  On a very basic level, nutrient criteria are the building blocks for meaningful regulation of entire sectors of activities and operations that, without limits, would do what they please regardless of the negative consequences for our waterways.
    • This bill would threaten the water quality of the pristine rivers across Montana and undermine years of hard work we’ve undertaken to reform Montana’s nutrient rules to ensure science – not politics – drives pollution control standards in Montana.
  • HB 164:  This bill came out of the blue and would weaken groundwater nutrient pollution standards across the State for pretty much every sector.  Sponsored by Rep. Glimm, this bill was literally proposed on the basis that existing limits in Montana’s rules seemed complicated and unduly stringent, and therefore it was better to lower the bar and make every sector play by the same standard.  Thing is, “lowering the bar” lacks any scientific basis, and different sectors have different groundwater pollution limits based on their respective significance and impacts on Montana’s water resources.
    • Weakening groundwater nitrate pollution standards would also risk Montana’s drinking water supplies: of the estimated 85% of Montanans who get drinking water from public water supply systems, many are dependent on groundwater which is disproportionately impacted by poorly treated wastewater pollution.
    • Weakening groundwater nitrate standards also incentivizes a “race to the bottom” and would have a chilling effect on the ability of local government to protect local water resources from overuse and exploitation, or to condition how and where polluting projects can place their wastes.  As all Montanans know, water – and waste – flows downhill, ultimately ending up in our rivers.  Lowering the pollution bar and handicapping local gov’t ability to protect sensitive streams or drinking water resources lacks common sense, much less a scientific basis.

Waterkeeper will continue to track these bad bills and any other dirty water shenanigans that pop up in the second half of the Session.  Stay vigilant and consider tracking these and like bills yourself on Montana’s excellent Bill Finder online.  You can also easily provide public comment or register to testify remotely on any bill you care about.  Remember, your voice matters – use it!