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North Dakota considers creating Department of Environmental Quality

BISMARCK, N.D. — The North Dakota government could grow by one department under a bill that has passed the state Senate.

Senate Bill 2327 would take the current Department of Health Environmental Health Section and create a new Department of Environmental Quality. The agency would be run by a government-appointed director and would have oversight from an 11-member, governor-appointed advisory council. The bill passed the Senate on a 27-17 vote. It still must be considered by the House.

Bill sponsor Sen. Jessica Unruh, R-Beulah, says taking the environmental health section out of the Health Department has been a topic of conversation for at least a decade. Supporters viewed this year, when other efforts are being made to reinvent government, as an opportune time to take the plunge.

Dave Glatt, environmental health director in the state's Department of Health, says the bill moves all the functions of his section to a new department, "nothing taken away, nothing added."

The elevation of environmental issues at the state and federal level in the past decade have made it clear that the environmental health division needs to become more of a priority, he says.

"It was hard to have everybody as the No. 1 priority" in the busy Health Department, he says.

The bill has no appropriation attached to it, and supporters believe the new department can be created with no fiscal impact to the state. Opponents question whether that is possible, with Sen. Oley Larson, R-Minot, pointing out on the floor that even new letterhead has a cost.

However, Glatt says much of the infrastructure needed for a new department already is in place, and he believes any additional costs to create the agency can be covered through other efficiencies found through the realignment process, which could include "repositioning employees."

The advisory council created by the bill would replace two current advisory councils. The new council would include one seat for agriculture. The environmental health section has several agricultural functions, including the regulation of concentrated animal feeding operations.

Kayla Pulvermacher, with North Dakota Farmers Union, says her organization is monitoring the issue, which she says will have an impact on members.

"Should agriculture be given more than one seat on the advisory council? Absolutely," she says. "We hope that the House will reconsider who the seats are allocated to."

Agronomist and farmer Sarah Lovas of Hillsboro agrees. She worries North Dakota's diverse agricultural industry can't be adequately represented by one person. Someone knowledgeable about ag in the Red River Valley might not be able to advocate for the cattle industry, she says.

"If agriculture doesn't have a seat at the table, someone else is going to make those decisions for us," she says.

Sen. Erin Oban, D-Bismarck, wishes an advisory council dealing with environmental regulation could be free of industry influences of any kind, whether from energy or agriculture, in favor of more input from science.

Glatt says the makeup of the advisory council will be up to the Legislature to iron out. However, he says agriculture has no representation on the health council, to which the Department of Health reports. Unruh says agriculture has only one seat on the two councils related to the environmental health division.

Lovas also worries about the possibility of over-regulation, while she concedes that perhaps the state taking on more regulation will allow for more local control and protection from federal regulations that don't fit for the state.

North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring says he is monitoring the bill. While there may be some areas of cooperation to iron out with a new agency, he says any issues would be minimal.

Oban was the lone vote against giving the bill a do-pass recommendation out of the Senate Natural Resources Committee. She worries the 90-minute committee hearing was inadequate to delve into possible issues and says she didn't have time to read the bill prior to the hearing.

Unruh, however, says the bill has been filed for at least a month, giving legislators and the public plenty of time to read and consider it.

Oban also worries a governor-appointed head could be at risk of giving in to a governor's interests or partisan politics.

"I don't want that person's politics impacting the land, water and air of all North Dakotans," she says.

Glatt doesn't think moving environmental concerns to its own agency will create any new challenges in relation to partisan issues or having unqualified people at the helm. Since the environmental health division already reported to a governor-appointed director, those issues already have come up in the past, he says. The division always has been able to "follow science and the law," and Glatt sees that continuing.

"Politics, you know, is out there, and you have to deal with it," he says.