Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Incoming Montana Department of Environmental Quality director discusses her plans

Sonja Nowakowski has been selected to run Montana's Department of Environmental Quality
Sonia Nowakowski has been selected to run Montana's Department of Environmental Quality

Ellis Juhlin: So you've been at DEQ since 2021 overseeing the air, energy and Mining division. Why do you now want the top job at the agency?

Sonja Nowakowski: This is an opportunity for me to explore and learn and grow. I love to learn. And I've worked in environmental policy for the last 20 years or so. And so it just is a natural fit.

Ellis Juhlin: There's a lot of ongoing work at the agency, and there's a lot that Director Dorrington is leaving in the midst of. There's back and forth over establishing water quality standards regarding nutrient pollution. There's proposed revisions to the state's bedrock environmental policy and several pending high profile court cases. And then on top of all of that, you have a legislative session in six months time. So how do you plan to lead the agency through these ongoing topics and, and these changes ahead of the session?

Sonja Nowakowski: You know, those are really big issues, and I don't take that lightly. These are issues that impact everyone in Montana. Clean air, clean water. And that's why the work of this agency is so important. I have a genuine interest in the success of this agency and of its employees. It's important for the public to understand, you know, who we are, what we do, and why it matters. And I will certainly focus on that. You know, DEQ is going to continue to make objective, scientific, accurate and timely decisions on these complex topics. And the scientists, engineers and professionals are at DEQ are the experts. So when we talk about these big issues, we also we aren't talking about preventing the industrial or agricultural development. You know, when we implement things correctly and efficiently, Montana's environmental regulations encourage and foster economic development. But development that's environmentally and socially sound.

Ellis Juhlin: You spent over a decade creating and writing policy as a nonpartisan staffer for the legislature, and then worked as a staffer for this agency. You'll now be moving into a cabinet position, serving at the pleasure of a Partisan elected governor. How will partisanship or politics affect your job now?

Sonja Nowakowski: You know, I don't think it does. You know, in a practical sense, in my role with legislative services, you know, the way I viewed it was regardless of who asked me a question, they got the same answer. You know, I drafted bills for 150 legislators, and I put my best work into every bill, regardless of who asked for it. At the legislature, I identified myself with the institution, perhaps as opposed to its occupants. And yes, I consider my work at DEQ as nonpartisan. I identify myself with the laws that are on the books. You know, regardless of party, we implement and we enforce those laws. And that's the work I'll continue to do.

Ellis Juhlin: A big portion of what DEQ does is carrying out the provision in Montana's constitution that says the state and each person shall maintain and improve a clean and healthful environment. What does that mean to you?

Sonja Nowakowski: Certainly. You know, when we talk about Montana's constitution, I think it's important to read article two, section three, in its entirety. The right to a clean and healthful environment and the right to pursuing life's basic necessities, enjoying and defending their lives and liberties, acquiring, possessing and protecting property, and seeking safety, health and happiness in all lawful ways. It's enjoying these rights. And all persons recognize these, their corresponding responsibilities. The individual right to a clean and healthful environment is extremely important. But it wasn't meant to elevate one person's rights over another's. And sometimes I feel like that gets a little bit lost in the discussion. That's why we talk about protection. You know, that's why the analysis that DEQ does day in and day out on subdivisions, water discharge, open cut air quality. That's why it's so, so critical. And that's also why MEPA is important. When we talk about balancing these interests and balancing these responsibilities.

Ellis Juhlin: You've been a big part of the citizen working group that's tasked with proposing changes to Montana's bedrock environmental policy. Or often referred to as MEPA. What is your vision for the future of Montana's Environmental Policy Act?

Sonja Nowakowski: MEPA facilitates the ability of state agencies to make better decisions, and better decisions should be balanced decisions. You know, balanced decisions maintain Montana's clean and healthful environment without compromising the ability of people to pursue their livelihoods. Better decisions are accountable decisions. And accountable decisions under MEPA clearly explain the agency's reasons for selecting a particular course of action. Better decisions are made with public participation. You know, when I think about me, it's a state policy that encourages productive and enjoyable harmony between humans and the environment, to protect the right to use and enjoy private property free of undue government regulation, to promote efforts that will prevent, mitigate or eliminate damage to the environment and biosphere and stimulate the health and welfare of humans.

Ellis Juhlin: A big part of conversations with that MEPA working group have been about climate change in the consideration of climate change. Do you think that climate change poses a threat to Montanans?

Sonja Nowakowski: You know, I think we've seen changes in our climate. We've certainly seen different, you know, weather patterns.

Ellis Juhlin: So I'm going to kind of pivot now, a little more into the climate change topic and just do a quick recap for listeners. In the 2023 session, the legislature changed Montana's Environmental Policy Act to exclude greenhouse gas emissions, the consideration of climate change. And then in the held case, the district court blocked that change, saying limitations on considering a project's contributions to climate change infringed on plaintiff's right to a clean and healthy environment under the Constitution, like we discussed. DEQ as a defendant and you took the stand in that case almost exactly a year ago. This agency has argued that the role of addressing climate change oftentimes falls to the legislature and to your tasked with carrying out policies passed by lawmakers. The state also argued that Montana alone is not responsible for climate change, so Montana alone cannot address this global issue. Will this agency continue with those arguments under your leadership, or will it make new arguments when the case is heard by the Montana Supreme Court on July 10th?

Sonja Nowakowski: Sure, this is such an important decision that we're waiting on. I'm. I'm absolutely honored to be in this position at this time. And we look forward to the oral arguments on July 10th, which obviously, because of the ongoing litigation, I'm limited in what I can discuss with you today. We certainly recognize the impact of this case. In Montana, the burden is on the deck to establish predictability of the enforcement of environmental protection. And depending on the outcome of this case, that predictability and burden is going to need to be evaluated in depth.

Ellis Juhlin: As you touched on and as the case illustrates, sometimes the legislature passes a law that you have to implement as the environmental agency, but then the courts stop that law or portions of that law. The agency can oftentimes be put in the middle between lawmakers and judges many times. How do you deal with that or how will you deal with that? As director.

Sonja Nowakowski: You know that that kind of brings me into, Director Dorington often talks about kind of standing in the gap, standing between that 'yes' and that 'no'. And I think that's what we do here. We're focused on excellence and efficiency and customer service, accountability, communication. And so we take that into account every day when, when we do our work. And thinking through these, these decisions.

Ellis Juhlin: You mentioned customer service. Who are your customers?

Sonja Nowakowski: Oh, boy. That well, the taxpayers of Montana are on every permit. It varies. They're stakeholders and interested parties. I'm a journalist by trade, and one thing I learned and why I loved covering natural resource issues, back when I was a reporter, is you often hear, well, there's two sides to every story. When we talk about environmental issues, we all know there are way more than two sides. And so all of those sides, all of those folks are our stakeholders. And we have a responsibility to listen to their input. From the applicants to the neighbors to the local governments, to the other affected agencies, our customers, really very far and wide.

Ellis Juhlin: Thank you. I'm sure I'll continue talking with you and seeing you around as I keep covering DEQ.

Ellis Juhlin is MTPR's Rocky Mountain Front reporter. Ellis previously worked as a science reporter at Utah Public Radio and a reporter at Yellowstone Public Radio. She has a Master's Degree in Ecology from Utah State University. She's an average birder and wants you to keep your cat indoors. She has two dogs, one of which is afraid of birds.
Become a sustaining member for as low as $5/month
Make an annual or one-time donation to support MTPR
Pay an existing pledge or update your payment information