Montana COVID-19 testing
Montana COVID-19 testing lab
Montana COVID-19 testing lab
Boulder River Bridge view
Boulder River Bridge view
Montana Fress Press explores forgotten communities
Montana Fress Press explores forgotten communities
Montana Governor Steve Bullock at Innovate Montana 2019
Montana Governor Steve Bullock at Innovate Montana 2019
Bikers and Hikers stranded at Mystic Lake Cabin
Bikers and Hikers stranded at Mystic Lake Cabin
Montana Governor Steve Bullock OKs construction of XL Pipeline in Montana
XL OK for Montana
XL OK for Montana
Griz management exceeds sustainable mortality rate
Griz management exceeds sustainable mortality rate

DPHHS director praises Holzman’s work

Dr. Greg Holzman. Courtesy of the University of Montana.

Dr. Greg Holzman, the state’s chief medical officer, has announced his resignation, according to a source with direct knowledge of the resignation.

However, it is unclear when Holzman will leave his position.

In a statement provided by a spokesperson for the Department of Public Health and Human Services, agency Director Adam Meier said he appreciated Holzman’s work. The department did not cite a departure date.

“He’s done an incredible job as a medical advisor during the COVID-19 pandemic and through an ever-changing environment,” Meier said in the statement. “He has worked tirelessly, and I look forward to continuing to work with him over the next few months on the state’s vaccine rollout.”

Holzman has worked at the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services since 2015, according to his LinkedIn profile. The profile said he previously served as deputy director at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Office for State, Tribal, Local and Territorial Support.

A voicemail left for Holzman at his office was not immediately returned Friday morning.

Gov. Greg Gianforte followed up Friday on an announcement he made earlier this week and removed the statewide mask mandate.

Best medical practices suggest wearing a tight-fitting or even two masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

In September, Holzman said the number of deaths from the coronavirus had surpassed motor vehicle fatalities. People wear seat belts to prevent premature deaths and undue suffering, and he said people needed to take precautions for COVID-19 as well.

“Watch your distance. Wear a mask. Wash your hands. For fellow Montanans, for health, for the economy,” Holzman said at a news conference. “We need to do it all for each other.”

He said he knew people had COVID-19 fatigue, but they needed to continue to work together or face more preventable, untimely deaths and suffering.

As of Friday morning, the state department of health had tallied 1,320 deaths from the coronavirus. Case counts spiked in Montana over the fall but have trended downward in recent weeks.

All told, 96,852 people in the state have been infected. As of Friday, 43,778 people in Montana also have been fully vaccinated, according to the state dashboard.

Even without the mandate, Pat Zellar, spokesperson for RiverStone Health in Yellowstone County, said earlier this week that people should still wear masks. “It is the healthy and smart thing to do,” she said. “The virus is still with us in our community … the risk is still there, we know through scientific research that masks help.”

Despite lifting the mandate — part of Gianforte’s plan to shift the responsibility of controlling the virus away from government mandates to individual responsibility — Gianforte encouraged people to continue wearing masks.

“Since we’re not out of the woods yet, I will continue to wear a mask, and I encourage all Montanans to do the same to protect themselves, their loved ones and their neighbors,” he said at a Wednesday press conference.

While there will not be one overruling mask mandate, local health officials and private businesses can still put their own restrictions in place, Gianforte said.

The move to remove the mandate was contingent on two things: civil liability for businesses against lawsuits relating to COVID and increased vaccination.

The governor signed Senate Bill 65 into law Wednesday. During his first week in office, he updated phase 1B of the vaccine rollout to include all Montanans more than 70 years old and those aged 16-69 with serious underlying conditions.

House Bill 121 would give elected officials final say in public health directives.

Opponents testified that the measure would insert politics into science-based decision making and potentially slow public health responses during an emergency.

Supporters of the measure said the bill would ensure that overzealous health officers and health boards can be kept in check by voters via elected officials. For example, they said, health orders implemented by some county health boards and health officers that were stricter than statewide mandates were made without citizen input and have harmed small businesses.

“Our elected officials bear the responsibility of taking all factors into account when setting policy. Now, I will grant that at times, elected officials make judgments that are not universally accepted, or that they might even make mistakes. It’s part of living in a free society,” said Rep. David Bedey, R-Hamilton, the proposal’s sponsor. “Under House Bill 121, there are no restrictions on the ability of our public health officials to provide elected officials sound advice, which I cannot help but think would most often be persuasive.”

Under the bill’s provisions, health officers and health boards could still issue health orders during public health emergencies, but elected officials, like county commissioners, could amend or rescind those orders. In non-emergency situations, the bill would remove the power of local health boards to issue orders and require them to instead propose actions, which the elected governing body overseeing them could approve or deny.

Bedey has also sponsored another measure he said is in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. That measure, House Bill 122, would limit how long emergency and disaster declarations issued by the governor can remain in effect without legislative approval, as well as streamline the convening of a special session of the Legislature so lawmakers can vote to overturn a governor’s emergency orders. Another bill, House Bill 145, sponsored by Rep. Paul Fielder, R-Thompson Falls, would strip local health boards of the power to enforce health mandates and issue orders, instead limiting them to making recommendations to elected officials. 

While Bedey said he understands concerns from opponents that public health decisions could become politicized, he said that in an extended health crisis like the current one, local public health orders more strict than statewide directives need to be weighed against economic and business impacts. 

“Real-world situations and crises often have many more than one, or even two, dimensions that need to be considered,” he said. 

Opponents, on the other hand, said the measure would unintentionally lead to politics leaking into decisions about public health, which they said should be made based strictly on science. 

“House Bill 121 throws public health squarely into the political arena,” said Jane Webber, a Cascade County commissioner and member of the county’s Board of Health in testimony on Thursday. “Do not place the decisions of our health and your family’s health in the hands of politicians. I am a politician, and I openly acknowledge there are some in politics who are easily swayed … possibly by a phone call, sometimes by a campaign contributor.”

When this photo was first posted, we mistakenly said it was on Main Street in Billings Heights. The location is actually on Grand Avenue in Billings.

Jan 15, 2021

This mermaid has a new perspective. The Starbuck's sign on Grand Ave in Billings flipped during Wednesday's wind event. 
Photo by Laura L Moore.


If passed, the bill would cancel previous regulations that counties and cities including Missoula have enacted banning indoor vaping or the sale of flavored nicotine solutions.

In what opponents say is part of a larger push this session to pass laws favorable to the tobacco industry, legislators discussed a bill proposal Wednesday that would prevent local governments from regulating nicotine products ingested through devices like electronic cigarettes and vape pens.

The proposal, HB 137, would prohibit local governments and the state Department of Public Health and Human Services from regulating “alternative nicotine products or vapor products” used in devices like e-cigarettes. That prohibition would prevent local governments or state health officials from regulating the sale, manufacture, flavoring, marketing, product display, public exposure to and access to those products. It would also define the nicotine products as separate from tobacco products, though the U.S. Food and Drug Administration classifies the devices used to ingest the nicotine solutions as tobacco products

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Ron Marshall, R-Hamilton, owns a vaping retail chain with his wife, Deanna Marshall. He has also sponsored a bill, HB 106, to prohibit expansion of the Montana Clean Indoor Air Act.

“Writing law should be done in this house, the people’s house,” Marshall told members of the House Human Services Committee during the hearing at the Capitol. 

Opponents said the bill would prevent individual communities from deciding what is best for them, and that enacting the legislation would result in increased use of the addictive flavored nicotine products by young people youth. E-cigarette and vaping product business owners who testified in favor of the bill, however, said the Legislature should adopt one set of rules for businesses so users — many of whom they say have used their products to quit smoking cigarettes — have reliable access.

“Everyone else behind me that owns vape shops, runs vape shops, believes in vape, they share and have the same mission as myself and my family to help the people who everyone has forgot about, the daily smokers,” testified Keith Bowman, part owner and general manager of a group of six e-cigarette vape stores in Montana. 

The proposal comes after the city of Missoula in November became the first in the state to ban the sale of flavored e-cigarettes. Additionally, nearly a dozen counties in the state prohibit the use of vaping products indoors. The Department of Public Health and Human Services also enacted an emergency rule, at the direction of then-Gov. Steve Bullock in 2019, to prohibit sales of flavored e-cigarettes. The state then proposed making that ban permanent before abandoning the idea in August. 

The bill would rescind those local policies. Supporters like Deanna Marshall said Wednesday that those regulations have harmed businesses that sell the products. One supporter of the proposal, Tommie Dobbs, co-owner of a Missoula store, said about three-fourths of her nicotine juice sales come from the flavored solutions that will soon be banned in the city. 

“Losing these juice sales, essentially, will lead us to closing our doors,” she said. “I worry about closing my doors, but not just for myself. I worry about my customers who have been coming in with fear in their eyes about not having their products available to them.”

Opponents testifying Wednesday included medical professionals and representatives of the Montana chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Association of Montana Public Health Officials. They noted that the federal government had declared use of the products among youth an epidemic and that e-cigarette use makes minors more likely to pick up cigarette smoking later on. In Montana, 30% of high school students reported using e-cigarettes, according to a 2019 survey. That same survey found that daily vaping among high school students increased 263% between 2017 and 2019. 

While using vape or e-cigarette products is considered safer than smoking cigarettes, it’s still an unsafe habit that research suggests is bad for a person’s lungs and heart, according to Johns Hopkins University. E-cigarettes are not approved by the FDA as a smoking-cessation product. 

Opponents said any measures limiting the ability of local governments to regulate those products would allow companies that manufacture or sell them to increasingly target minors through enticing flavors like candy or mint.

“Some of you in the room may remember the days of flavored bubble gum cigars, and packs of candy cigarettes, and TV and magazine ads, and Joe Camel, and I think we’re going down the same road with our youth with this,” said Rick Duncan, superintendent of Powell County High School, speaking on behalf of the School Administrators of Montana at the hearing. 

In a Wednesday press release, public health groups opposed to the proposal said it was among 20 bills up for consideration this year that would weaken public health and tobacco laws. 

“From the perspective of Big Tobacco, this is dream legislation,” Annie Tegen, with the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, said in the release. “It takes away the right of local communities to protect their citizens and lets the tobacco industry and Helena politicians weaken protections supported by Montana citizens.”

The committee didn’t take any action on the bill Wednesday. 

Federal regulators and West Virginia agencies are rewriting environmental rules again to pave the way for construction of a major natural gas pipeline across Appalachia, even after an appeals court blocked the pipeline for the second time.
by Ken Ward Jr.
Dec. 8, 5 a.m. EST

Sections of pipe for the Mountain Valley Pipeline in Elliston, Virginia, in September. (Heather Rousseau/The Roanoke Times via AP Photo)

ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up to receive our biggest stories as soon as they’re published.

This story was co-published with Mountain State Spotlight, a new nonprofit newsroom covering West Virginia.

Last month, a federal appeals court blocked one of the key permits for construction of a massive natural gas pipeline that cuts through West Virginia and that industry officials and their political allies in the state are desperate to see completed.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found that environmental groups are likely to prevail in a case arguing federal and state regulators wrongly approved the Mountain Valley Pipeline through a streamlined review process for which the project isn’t eligible.

If this sounds familiar, it is. A strikingly similar thing happened two years ago.

In October 2018, the same appeals court blocked the same $5.4 billion pipeline because the developer’s plan to temporarily dam four West Virginia rivers didn’t meet special restrictions that state regulators had put on the streamlined approval process.

But rather than pausing or rethinking the project at the time, the state Department of Environmental Protection rewrote its construction standards so that the pipeline would qualify.

After their most recent court loss, West Virginia officials are once again rewriting their restrictions to help pave the way for the pipeline to qualify for that streamlined permitting process.

“Here we go again,” citizen group lawyer Derek Teaney wrote in frustration in the latest of a series of legal challenges to the government agencies that have bent environmental standards for the pipeline.

When it is built, the Mountain Valley Pipeline, known as MVP, will transport natural gas from Wetzel County, near West Virginia’s Northern Panhandle, to Pittsylvania County, Virginia, crossing 200 miles in West Virginia and 100 miles in Virginia. The project is one of several large transmission pipelines in the works across Appalachia, part of the rush to market natural gas from drilling and production in the Marcellus Shale formation.

Political leaders and business boosters in West Virginia have been big supporters of such projects, hoping that the rise of natural gas would replace jobs and tax revenues lost as the coal industry declines. But some state residents worry that West Virginia’s drive to encourage gas comes with the same environmental costs as its historic dependence on coal.

So far, the promise that natural gas would bring an economic renaissance to West Virginia has not come true.

At least one other major pipeline project, the $8 billion Atlantic Coast Pipeline, also faced delays over problems securing environmental permits. A 4th Circuit ruling on that project had included a reference to Dr. Seuss’ “The Lorax,” saying the U.S. Forest Service had failed to “speak for the trees” when it approved the project.

Despite a legal victory in which the U.S. Supreme Court overturned that decision, the project’s developers, Dominion Energy and Duke Energy, blamed “an unacceptable layer of uncertainty” from other cases over pipeline permitting.

Later, an analysis by E&E News found that legal deficiencies that led to project delays grew out of Trump administration officials who overruled government scientists and land managers during the review process.

The latest MVP case is particularly instructive in understanding the way government regulatory agencies have manipulated their own rules and processes to push through pipeline proposals.

Projects like MVP need a variety of approvals before they can be built. Developers and regulators must study various alternatives, outline the need for the project and show what steps will be taken to reduce damage to the environment and minimize negative effects on important resources, such as public lands and water supplies.

But a 2018 review by ProPublica and the Charleston Gazette-Mail found that federal and state agencies tasked with enforcing the nation’s environmental laws had expedited the pipeline, sometimes changing the rules to ease the project’s approvals. In numerous instances, officials greenlit the pipeline despite serious unanswered questions.

Among the necessary permits that have been the subject of much controversy is a federal Clean Water Act “dredge and fill” permit. Such permits are issued by the Army Corps of Engineers in two ways, either as an “individual” permit that undergoes more scrutiny or through a streamlined process known as a “nationwide” permit. For a nationwide permit to be used in any state, that state’s environmental regulators have to approve it for use there.

In West Virginia, the state Department of Environmental Protection approved the use of a streamlined permit for pipeline construction, but it added a condition that it could be used only for pipelines of less than 36 inches in diameter.

Corps officials and the WVDEP approved the 42-inch-diameter MVP through this streamlined process anyway, a move that was blocked by the 4th Circuit in its October 2018 ruling.

But even before the court ruled on that issue, the WVDEP was moving to get rid of the size limit on pipelines eligible for the streamlined permit.

In the latest case, pipeline opponents argued that the agencies improperly relaxed those rules. Among other things, they alleged that the wrong official within the Corps — a district engineer, rather than the agency’s chief engineer — approved the WVDEP’s relaxation of the rules.

During a Nov. 9 oral argument on environmentalists’ motion to suspend the Clean Water Act permit, 4th Circuit Chief Judge Roger Gregory pressed lawyers for the Corps about why the agency had approved the state’s changes.

“How was that in the public interest and what procedure did you use to make that determination?” Gregory asked.

Corps lawyer Kevin McArdle pointed Gregory to a memorandum that he said outlined the agency’s decision. The memo, though, simply said that the change was intended to allow larger pipelines to be approved through the streamlined process, and that the Corps was deferring to WVDEP on that issue.

And Judge Stephanie Thacker quizzed MVP’s lawyers about why the company told industry analysts in August that, once its permit was approved, it would try to get construction in streams done “as quickly as possible before anything is challenged” by environmental groups.

“Because it was in recognition, Your Honor, that our opponents are implacable,” responded MVP lawyer George Sibley. “They will challenge anything we do. We are not going to wait to get sued and wait for those lawsuits to be resolved.”

Teaney, the citizen group lawyer, urged the 4th Circuit panel of judges not to focus on MVP’s claims that legal battles have prompted construction delays that are costing the company $20 million a month for temporary sediment control efforts. He noted that the 4th Circuit warned the pipeline company more than two years ago it probably wasn’t going to win approval through the streamlined permitting process.

“Nonetheless, it persisted with these invalid fixes that West Virginia and the Corps have tried and it can’t come to this court now and ask this court to consider that in the equitable balance,” Teaney said.

Later that day, the 4th Circuit issued a short order that suspended the water permit for the pipeline. Then on Dec. 1, the court issued a more-detailed opinion, suspending the permit until a full appeal could be litigated and explaining its reasoning.

A WVDEP spokesman said that the agency is reviewing the 4th Circuit decision. The state agency is not named as a party, because the case focuses procedurally on the federal Clean Water Act permit.

A spokeswoman for MVP noted that the 4th Circuit declined a request from environmentalists to stay a separate regulatory approval for the project, one regarding endangered species protections. The spokeswoman, Natalie Cox, said the company is considering “the various options available” for the water permit, including applying for a new permit through the non-streamlined process. She said the company remains confident the pipeline will be completed and be in service by the second half of 2021.

Meanwhile, the WVDEP and the corps are making changes again that would pave the way for the pipeline. The Corps is reissuing new versions of its streamlined permitting rules, making sure the appropriate process is followed. And the WVDEP is in the process of updating its state conditions for that permitting, including eliminating the mandate that pipelines larger than 36 inches in diameter don’t qualify.

“When they got called out for not following the rules, they just attempted to change the rules,” said Angie Rosser, spokeswoman for the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, one of the groups that has been challenging the pipeline in court. “That’s not the way we can allow it to work.”

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