Missouri bill targeting DNR clears House committee, still faces uncertain future

Supporters say the changes are needed to rein in an aggressive Missouri Department of Natural Resources.

State Sen. Eric Burlison, R-Battlefield (photo by Tim Bommel/Missouri House Communications).

A Missouri House committee advanced a sweeping bill environmentalists say would hamper the state’s ability to enforce clean air and water laws. But several amendment votes could undermine the bill’s prospects in the Senate. 

The House Emerging Issues Committee voted 7-4 Wednesday in favor of a bill that places various limitations on Missouri’s environmental regulators and removes three counties near St. Louis from a federal air quality program, an action that could cost the state $52 million in lost federal proceeds. 

Supporters of Senate Bill 40, sponsored by Sen. Eric Burlison, R-Battlefield, argue the legislation is necessary to rein in the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, which they say has been harmful to businesses. 

Among its provisions, the bill revokes the authority of several environmental commissions to set permit fees and bars the state from imposing stricter regulations regarding hazardous waste than those set by the Environmental Protection Agency. It also requires DNR to provide detailed information in writing before fining a business and keeps some records about violations confidential.

Burlison said he spoke with businesses in his community that are terrified to hear from DNR and fear being shut down. 

“This is not how our citizens should feel when someone from their own government appears on their doorstep,” Burlison told a House committee last month.

Michael Berg, a lobbyist for the Sierra Club, an environmental group, said that over time, if fees don’t increase with inflation, the change would essentially bankrupt DNR, limiting its ability to enforce environmental law. 

“This is a terrible bill with the sole purpose to weaken environmental protection in the state of Missouri,” Berg said. 

Senate Bill 40 passed the Senate early last month, but the House committee added several amendments on Wednesday, meaning that if the House passes the bill it would need approval once again from the Senate. 

It could very well run into problems in that chamber over the provision removing St. Charles, Franklin and Jefferson counties from a federally mandated emissions inspection program designed to bring the St. Louis area into compliance with the EPA’s air quality standards.

Some senators had hoped the House would remove that provision and keep the three counties in the program. Senators previously held the bill up in the Government Accountability and Fiscal Oversight Committee out of concern over the provision, Burlison said last month. The change could cost the state as much as $52 million in lost highway funds.

On the floor, some senators said the program had gone on too long and they were ready to square off with the EPA, which they didn’t believe would yank the federal funds.

But before the vote, Burlison said he was working with House members to make sure the emissions language would be removed. 

Sen. Greg Razer, a Kansas City Democrat, cast doubt on the idea of putting trust in the Missouri House. 

“Often times when you go to the House of Representatives — things move much faster on that side of the building and some really bad policy comes out of that chamber. And there is always just the thought on both sides of the aisle, ‘Eh, the Senate will fix it.’” 

Indeed the House committee voted to keep the emissions language in the bill.

Burlison did not immediately return a voicemail seeking comment after the House committee vote. Neither did Sen. Lincoln Hough, a Springfield Republican, who chairs the Senate Governmental Accountability and Fiscal Oversight Committee. 

The committee added several other amendments with little debate, including one to broaden the title of the bill in such a way it opens the legislation up to even more amendments on the House floor. Under Missouri law, legislation must be confined to one subject that is expressed in the title. 

Members voted to change the title from “modifies provisions relating to the Department of Natural Resources” to “modifies provisions relating to natural resources,” which Rep. Tracy McCreery, D-St. Louis, feared what the broadened title could lead to. 

“So so many things could fall under that category of natural resources,” she said. 

The bill would bar DNR from creating any regulations dealing with hazardous waste that are stricter than federal rules set by the Environmental Protection Agency. Critics worry that would undo a voluntary cleanup program that awards $1 million in grants each year. 

But supporter say DNR is overly aggressive to businesses.

“They should be working to try to help businesses comply with EPA regulations, but they shouldn’t go beyond what has been vetted at the federal level,” said Ray McCarty, president and CEO of Associated Industries of Missouri. 

The bill also revokes the authority of the Hazardous Waste Management Commission, the Air Conservation Commission, and the Clean Water Commission to set fees for permits starting in August. Supporters say those should be set by the legislature. 

And in cases of clean water violations, DNR would be required to provide information about potential penalties in writing. The bill would make documents related to those violations confidential, which environmental groups say would limit accountability and harm both residents and businesses that are accused of violating the rules.

Overall, McCreery said the legislation would be “harmful to the environment” in a variety of ways. 

“I feel like this bill,” she said, “even as it came over from the Senate, takes Missouri in the wrong direction.”