Environmentalists won’t be looking for new laws from the 1996 Idaho Legislature. Their biggest hope is to hold onto environmental protections already on the books.
Mike Medberry of the Idaho Conservation League acknowledges there is little chance that stronger environmental laws will be enacted by an overwhelmingly Republican majority and a business-minded governor during the session that starts today.
“What we are going to be doing is mostly defensive. We want to keep the good laws we have from being weakened. That includes some of the water quality laws,” Medberry said. “We want to see them strengthened if at all possible, but I’m not sure that’s possible given the makeup of the Legislature and the administration these days.”
Brent Olmstead, a lobbyist for the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry, does not expect any effort to weaken environmental standards.
What he does expect is a continuation of efforts to carry out Gov. Phil Batt’s mandate that enforcement of environmental laws be “user friendly,” with the emphasis on getting problems corrected rather than finding and punishing violators.
“You will not see any standards lessened in any way for the protection of the environment,” Olmstead said. “The governor is not going to roll over by any stretch of the imagination.”
So-called “brownfields” legislation may be the 1996 session’s biggest test of the Batt philosophy.
Brownfields laws allow a property owner to escape future liability for contamination once the property has been certified as cleaned up to standards designated for its intended use.
“It’s land recycling,” Olmstead said.
“It allows for abandoned, idled or underutilized properties, most traditionally at a community’s core, to be brought back on the tax rolls.”
An example might be an abandoned gas station that cannot be developed into a new business because landowners fear they might be stuck for the bills for future cleanup.
Olmstead said such laws have been enacted in 27 states and another dozen states will be considering similar legislation this year.
But Medberry fears the public will be cut out of the process.
“Industry is writing the rules that give industry a break. The banking and real estate industries are writing this legislation and it’s going to move pretty quickly through the Statehouse,” he said.
“I think there should be some process for public involvement, concern about the land that they live next to.”
Last session, the Legislature showed its pro-business inclination by approving a new “environmental audit” law.
It allows companies to conduct their own reviews and, if environmental hazards are found, to correct the problem without the fear of being fined by the state. The reviews will not be public information unless it can be proven that the violations were intentional.
At Batt’s insistence, the law will be in effect for just two years unless extended by the Legislature. Until then, House Speaker Michael Simpson said he does not expect to see the law changed.
“It would be difficult to change it unless you can demonstrate that there is a problem,” he said. “It’s a different way of looking at environmental problems - the carrot instead of the stick. It may or may not work, but there’s nothing wrong with trying it.”
Medberry fully expects Idaho industry to take advantage of the law.
“When you have the industries who are to be regulated actually writing the laws regulating them, there are some pretty significant loopholes that come out,” he said.
But Olmstead said environmental standards will not be ignored. There still are federal standards to be observed and “ample opportunity for the public to be involved,” he said.
Deputy Attorney General Clive Strong, who heads the attorney general’s Natural Resources Division, said the Legislature likely will work on endangered species matters and management plans for wolves and grizzly bears, along with laws on water transfers, aquifer recharge and salmon issues.
However, Strong said, “I’m not anticipating a very active session” on environmental issues.”
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