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Montana PSC Considers New Garbage Hauling Service in Missoula




The Missoula landfill. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file)

(Daily Montanan) The Montana Public Service Commission is weighing whether a competing garbage hauling service can operate in Missoula County, which currently is served by Republic Services of Montana.

L&L Site Services, which operates in Gallatin County, tried in 2018 to enter the market in Missoula. The PSC turned down the application after the case landed in court and a judge remanded it to the regulatory body with instructions to weigh evidence differently, according to the 2019 order.

“Perhaps L&L wishes that it had employed different strategies or marshaled additional facts in support of its 2018 application,” said L&L in an early motion to dismiss. “However, the issue of whether L&L should be granted a Class D certificate, and more specifically, whether there is a public need for a new carrier in Missoula County, has been fully litigated in a case in which the ink is barely dry.”

Last week, Quentin Rhoades, a lawyer representing L&L, and Bill Mercer, a lawyer representing Republic, made their arguments to the Public Service Commission and responded to questions about the case. The PSC regulates monopoly entities in the state and will decide if the public in Missoula County needs another trash company. Mercer is also a state Republican lawmaker from Billings.

Rhoades, with Rhoades and Erickson, said eight major customers in Missoula County including the airport said they were not happy with the service Republic provided, the price, or both, and he said L&L has proven it can enter a similar market and succeed, pointing to Gallatin County. In Missoula, L&L wants to do business as Grizzly Disposal and Recycling.

“L&L is able to handle that kind of growth and has been very successful in managing it,” Rhoades said.

In presenting his case to the PSC, Rhoades also said people in Missoula County pay some of the highest rates in the state, including twice what customers in Whitefish pay and three times the costs people in Great Falls pay.

He also argued a survey showed customers in Missoula aren’t happy, although Mercer later offered a different perspective on the data. Rhoades said a survey of people in Missoula County showed that 19 percent were displeased with Republic’s customer service, and 17 percent were dissatisfied with overall quality provided by the monopoly, Rhoades said.

Allowing L&L to compete might not be good for Republic’s profits, and it might be tough for L&L itself, he said. But he said competition would be good for at least one party.

“You know who it’s good for? It’s the shippers (the customers),” Rhoades said. “So those prices are better in Gallatin County now because of this competition than they were before.”

Mercer, though, said L&L trotted out the same number of witnesses, eight, it had used last time around to try to argue the county needed another provider, and he pointed to some of the context around the survey results as part of his rebuttal. First, he said in a community of 100,000 people, 15,000 people received text messages with the survey about garbage hauling, but just 784 decided to participate, and 224 then opted out of it.

In the end, he said 81 percent of people who responded to the survey questions said they were pleased with Republic’s services. And he wondered how that figure was any evidence the company wasn’t meeting the need or able to do so.

“When you have 15,000 people who are asked a question and only 584 decide to answer it, and of that group, 81 percent say they’re pleased with the services, do you have a public need in this community?” said Mercer, of Holland and Hart.

He also pointed out that notable voices were missing as proponents of L&L’s application, such as Missoula’s elected officials. For example, when the City of Missoula wasn’t happy with the private company running the water utility, it went to court and forced a purchase by the municipality. Mercer, who represented the Carlyle Group in that case, said the fact that the mayor and city councilors have not showed up and demanded L&L be allowed to serve the market in this case should be persuasive.

“That’s in our view very, very significant,” Mercer said.

So was the lack of new information from L&L since it made its request in 2018, he said. In the 2019 order denying L&L’s application for a Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity, Commissioners said they lacked some comparative operational and market analyses, Mercer said. He pointed to specifics the PSC noted in the earlier order, such as details about market concentration, price and route comparisons, and service options — and noted the absence of those items in the current docket.

“This record is bare in that regard,” Mercer said.

The PSC will evaluate “public convenience and necessity” to decide whether to authorize a certificate to L&L, according to state statute. It will weigh the effects the proposed service will have on existing services, among other considerations.

In an email, Dan Stusek, with the PSC, said Commission staff are putting together a memo that will be published in the case in the next few weeks: “The Commission will then have a work session to reach a final decision on L&L’s application and will issue a written decision soon thereafter. We would expect a work session during the first few weeks of March.”

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Like Human Children, Great Apes Are Inclined to Learn From Teaching




A new study by researchers from Central European University’s (CEU) Department of Cognitive Science, Eotvos Lorand University (ELTE), the University of St. Andrews, and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology look at whether apes are similar to humans regarding learning capacities when someone is trying to teach them something. The study, “Learning from communication versus observation in great apes,” was published on February 21, 2022 in Scientific Reports.

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Missoula Planning Board Approves Rezone Request for River Road Subdivision




The developers are seeking to rezone 2.3 acres off River Road to accommodate a 19-unit housing project. The parcel is located in the center of this photo.

The consolidated planning board on Tuesday night approved a zoning request for a 19-unit subdivision planned on two acres off River Road, saying it aligned with Missoula’s growth policy and goals around housing.

The project, proposed by Robert and Coleen Anderson and represented by the IMEG Corp., cleared the planning board on an 8-1 vote, despite the concerns of the residents in a neighboring development.

While members of the planning board heard those concerns, they agreed the property was suitable for the project and that it met city policies.

“I think this is a good space for a subdivision, both with access to services, access to parks and the slated improvements to River Road coming down the pipeline,” said board member Ellie Costello. “It does feel like we’re putting the cart before the horse sometimes with subdivisions, but the infrastructure does come to those spaces.”

City planning staff also recommended approval of the rezone with four variances, including a narrower street and a longer block length. The property is a deep but narrow lot, not unlike a number of other subdivisions already established in the same area.

“The housing policy, from the growth policy, links housing affordability to the ability to achieve more compact development,” said Joe Dehnert with IMEG. “It’s one of the driving factors for the developer in this project. The property location is ideal for infill development.”

The layout proposed for the 19-lot development.

Without approval of the rezone, Dehnert said the project would likely be unfeasible, or the housing units would cost far more.

“This aligns with the city’s housing goals and the growth policy while still being economically feasible for the developer,” Dehnert said. “Without the proposed rezone to allow for the higher density development and the proposed variances to accommodate the slightly narrower road, the project would become unaffordable for future residents, or undesirable to developers due to the reduced density.”

The project would set next to the Orchard Homes subdivision, which includes 14 housing units on property of a similar size. Residents there oppose the project and have cited concerns over parking, congestion and the poor condition of River Road.

“We understand that development is necessary for Missoula, but bad development isn’t necessary,” one resident said. “The infrastructure for River Road is so horrendous. To shove 19 houses in an area zoned for 10, I don’t know why we have to keep granting variances for homes that destroy other neighborhoods.”

The request for the rezone will now advance to the Missoula City Council for consideration in March.

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Empty Nutrient Standards Rule for Montana Waters Gives Little Chance for Public Comment




Public hearings aren’t very fruitful if a state agency provides little to comment on in order to dodge a deadline.

Tuesday was the Department of Environmental Quality’s deadline for public comment on Rule 1, a vague outline of an adaptive management program that will eventually use narrative instead of numeric standards to manage Montana’s waters.

But the eight commenters who rose during the public hearing – four in support of the rule and four against – had little new to contribute beyond what has been said for the past several months.

That’s because DEQ was facing a March 1 deadline to publish a rule that would switch the state from numeric limits for nitrogen and phosphorus concentration in streams and lakes to narrative standards. The 2021 Legislature passed on a party-line vote Senate Bill 358, which forces DEQ to reject numeric limits and set a March 1 deadline for the rule to be finalized.

However, a nutrient working group – diverse stakeholders who’ve been meeting since May – hasn’t been able to develop a narrative standard they can agree on, let alone one that satisfies the Environmental Protection Agency. If the EPA determines the state rule doesn’t go far enough to protect state waters, the EPA will take over.

So the DEQ hedged by coming up with Rule 1, a “framework” for the rule instead of the rule itself, by March 1, which the public was to comment on. DEQ water quality scientist Michael Suplee said the department would provide the final specifics as part of Rule 2 later this year, by Sept. 1 at the latest. Some question whether that meets the intent of SB 358.

“The rules under consideration are only a first step. Substantive rules setting forth specifics of the adaptive management program as well as the required repeal of numeric standards are not part of this rule-making,” Suplee said. “As the rulemaking deadline approached, there remained a substantial amount of work for the department to complete to fully address the concerns of multiple parties. Rather than move forward with a comprehensive rule package, the department opted to adopt new Rule 1.”

But it’s hard to see only the chassis of a vehicle and know if you want to buy it.

Those who spoke in favor of Rule 1 were the same as those who backed SB358: representatives of extractive industries or municipalities, all of which discharge excess nitrogen and phosphorus into streams and require permits to do so. So they like the chassis, regardless of the rest of the vehicle, because they stand to benefit when the state stops using the numerical limits that have been in place since 2014.

But many of Montana’s less-challenged streams still have narrative standards. Narrative or qualitative standards are words used to describe what water should look or behave like. But often, water quality is already compromised by the time people can see a problem.

That’s why most water quality standards, such as arsenic or copper concentrations, are numeric. With numeric standards, once an activity causes the concentration of nitrogen or phosphorus to exceed a safe amount, it needs to be reduced. That’s because an overload of nutrients – nitrogen or phosphorus – causes algae to grow out of control, robbing the water of oxygen and sometimes producing toxins.

Still, only some of Montana’s streams need numeric standards. They’ve taken 30 years to develop and are a good measure of just how much pollution should be allowed before water quality suffers. But numeric standards sometimes require polluters to either reduce their production or install controls that could be expensive.

Kelly Lynch, Montana League of Cities and Towns executive director, said Montana’s 127 incorporated towns have spent millions to remove excess nutrients from their sewage discharge.

“We’re at the point where further improvements are not financially feasible,” Lynch said. “Reverse osmosis is expensive.”

However, the state of Montana already recognized that and provided variances for up to 17 years for 36 sewage treatment plants.

Because Rule 1 provided so few specifics to argue against, Guy Alsentzer of Upper Missouri Waterkeeper only highlighted the fact the plan mentions no method of enforcement if standards are breached. Other opponents cited the overall problem with SB 358 mandating a process that ignores science and could harm state waters.

“SB358 is the tree that’s giving birth to the rules in front of us. We take objection with SB358 itself, and new Rule 1 and its associated definitions are unequivocally fruits of this poisonous tree,” said. “Narrative standards have been recognized by the department, the EPA and expert scientists across the nation as ineffective and inadequate to protect waterways from nutrient pollution.”

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at


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