By Darrell Ehrlick, Daily Montanan
On three separate occasions during a public hearing on Monday, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality reminded nearly three dozen residents that it didn’t pass House Bill 599, which changed open-cut mining rules, it was just trying to follow the law passed by the 2020 Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Greg Gianforte.
Every person who spoke during the nearly two-hour public comment period blasted the department for violating the Montana Constitution and not living up to its mission to protect the environment and the public’s right to participate in the decision-making process.
HB599 radically changed the way the state’s top environmental agency handled open-cut mining operations, often gravel pits and asphalt operations. It reduced the number of people who had to be notified, layered on rules that treated renters differently than those who live in owner-occupied dwellings, and also only requires notice for residents living within a half-mile. The permitting process was split from one to three different entities, which would handle the different portions of the permitting process, while greatly reducing the amount of time the agencies had to review a permit. The law also changed how and who must notify the public, and changed rules about how sites could operate, including allowing the mining operations to operate even throughout the night. The new law also lessened protections for water and wildfire.