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Dr. Paul Smith, a pediatric pulmonologist, talks about how smoke from wildfires and air pollution affects children on Monday at the Milltown State Park overlook. Smith was part of a group advocating for fully funding the Environmental Protection Agency and not rolling back health and safety regulations.

Laws with “boring names and little fanfare” are sneaking through Congress.

“They are described by promoters as an attempt to lift ‘unnecessary regulatory burdens,’ but in effect they constitute a license to pollute,” Jan Hoem of Missoula said Monday. Hoem is past president and current longtime board member of the Missoula City-County Air Quality Advisory Council. 

The Regulatory Reform Act and the Regulatory Accountability Act have the potential to weaken the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and a number of others, Hoem said during a press conference at the Milltown State Park overlook.

“One example of what these bills do is require regulators to adopt rules that are least costly to industry — even when laws exist that say human health takes precedence over costs,” she said. “The practical effect of these bills is to give Congress new power to repeal existing protections and block new ones. They must be stopped.”

Hoem joined a knot of health, fire and environmental officials on the bluff above the Milltown Reservoir Superfund cleanup site on a rare clean-air afternoon to call attention to the impacts on Missoula and Montana that President Donald Trump’s proposed budget cuts and health and safety protection rollbacks will have.

Hoem was joined by Dr. Paul Smith, a pediatric pulmonologist in Missoula; John Woodland, former Superior fire chief and co-chairman of the climate activist group 350 Missoula; Karen Knudsen, executive director of the Clark Fork Coalition; and Joe Griffin, a retired Montana Department of Environmental Quality hydrologist who managed the Butte Specialty Soils Superfund site.

One of the first things on the agenda when Congress returns to work in September will be the fiscal 2018 budget. Foremost among the agencies Trump has in his crosshairs is the Environmental Protection Agency. It’s unlikely lawmakers will go along with a proposal to reduce the agency’s budget by more than 30 percent and some 3,500 jobs, but significant changes are in the wind. Smith said they threaten to sacrifice the gains made over decades to protect the health of Americans, and in particular America’s children.

“To date this administration has put forward no actions that improve the environment, and instead has done just the opposite, placing on hold or reversing or seeking to reverse over 30 such protections,” he said.

The rollbacks include regulations on mercury, methane, benzene, carbon pollution and pesticides known to cause birth defects.

“Controls are given to the very industries that create the waste,” Smith said. “They have been given a seat at the table while you and I have not.”

Knudsen sang the praises of EPA Superfund cleanups on the Clark Fork River, even as tubers below floated through the former site of the Milltown Dam, where the confluence with the Blackfoot River has been restored.

The Clark Fork Coalition and the responsible party, the Atlantic Richfield Co., have joined an array of other agencies and groups to count similar successes all the way up to the headwaters at Silver Bow Creek, cleanups that have and can become the kind of economic drivers Trump says he’s after.

“This whole region, because of its biological and historic values, could just be an exceptional place to live, to recreate and to raise family,” Knudsen said. “So with this type of community and environmental vision right within reach, it is truly baffling to see the current administration slam on the brakes through budget slashings at EPA and Superfund programs and through some of these regulatory rollbacks that we’re seeing.”

A stated top priority for EPA administrator Scott Pruitt is the Superfund program, she added.

“He has also promised that within Superfund programs, projects that already have responsible parties at the table, that have funds secured and have agreements in place are the highest priority of all. That is the upper Clark Fork.

“So why, we ask, in this field season have we seen no action on any of the projects in Butte, no action on the projects on the Clark Fork river corridor? We are in lockstep with Scott Pruitt’s vision, but we’re not seeing the action on the ground.”

The press conference was hosted by Clean Air Montana, which on its website calls itself a coalition of Montanans committed to protecting clean air, taking action on climate change and ensuring a positive future for our children. It's supported by organizations such as the Sierra Club, the National Wildlife Federation, the Montana Conservation Voters Education Fund, Moms Clean Air Force and Environment Montana.

Woodland served as Superior’s fire chief for 10 years, and this summer has had a ringside seat to the Sunrise fire in Mineral County from his deck across the river. He’s also an outspoken climate change activist, and on Monday he pointed to potential lasting effects that more large fires and longer wildfire seasons could have on Montana’s forests.

It’s a field ripe for more study, but “it’s kind of been sneaking up on me that I don’t think a lot of those trees are ever going to be replaced," Woodland said. "They’re not going to grow back and that’s because of climate change.”

He cited a fire expert’s opinion that the forest landscapes of the West will become brush and grass by 2085.

“It just so shocks me to think we’re at that point where that kind of change is happening to the world because of what we’ve failed to address,” Woodland said.

Griffin said as the responsible party for a century-plus of mining and smelter contamination in the Clark Fork Valley, ARCO is footing the cleanup bill. But problems such as the Berkeley Pit in Butte will never be solved, and it’s important that the EPA’s Superfund program be funded to assure its ongoing treatment.

Montana’s congressional delegation is of varying degrees of help, the speakers said.

Republican Sen. Steve Daines isn’t helping the cause, Griffin said. “He has no idea what he’s talking about.”

Woodland has talked to Democratic Sen. Jon Tester on several occasions, most recently last Friday night.

“I’m pleased to see that in two different statements in the last week, he’s come out and indicated one of the factors behind the fires that we’re experiencing now is in fact the changing climate,” Woodland said. “What he has not done is talked at all about why the climate’s changing. He’s got a ways to go. He’s doing a little better, but he’s got a ways to go.”

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Mineral County, Veterans Issues Reporter

Outlying communities, transportation, history and general assignment reporter at the Missoulian