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Congressman Kevin Cramer, U.S. Sen. John Hoeven and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum hosted EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt at a closed roundtable discussion in Fargo Wednesday, Aug. 9. Dave Olson/Forum News Service

EPA leader talks privately in ND about scaling back federal waters rule

FARGO — Scott Pruitt, administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, attended a closed-door roundtable discussion in Fargo on Wednesday, Aug. 9, on the federal government's proposed revision of the Waters of the U.S. rule, known as WOTUS.

Attendees of the roundtable held at North Dakota State University included North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, U.S. Sen. John Hoeven and U.S. Rep. Kevin Cramer, as well as representatives of a number of farm groups.

After the roundtable, Pruitt left immediately without speaking to news reporters waiting outside the meeting room. In an interview Pruitt gave WDAY TV, he said the rules the EPA is looking to change were put in place by the previous administration that sought to enlarge federal power. But he said the days of "coercive Federalism" are over.

"Common sense is the recurring theme we have across the country," Pruitt told WDAY TV.

Burgum said the roundtable was closed out of respect for the wishes of the EPA administration, though Burgum, along with Hoeven and Cramer, answered questions regarding what was discussed.

Burgum said Pruitt's visit to North Dakota, which included a stop in Grand Forks, is part of a 25-state listening tour. One thing Pruitt heard Wednesday, Burgum said, was how federal regulation has been "holding back growth in this country and how we feel that you can both protect the environment and have economic growth."

Cramer, Hoeven and Burgum said farmers and ranchers are looking for greater clarity as far as the definition of "navigable" waters when it comes to federal jurisdiction for pollution control, and wetlands have been a major area of concern.

U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, who did not attend the roundtable, said WOTUS tops the regulatory concerns of farmers and ranchers she hears from.

"Flying over North Dakota, you can clearly see all the prairie potholes and real bodies of water, reinforcing how this rule just doesn't make sense for our state," Heitkamp said in a statement.

"For years I've been working with those on both sides of the aisle to offer relief for farmers, ranchers, and energy workers, and addressing this unworkable rule is at the top of the list."

The EPA has formally proposed to repeal an Obama administration regulation that extended the reach of the federal government over small waterways.

Under a new proposal, the federal government would go back to enforcing a guidance document from 2008 when deciding whether a waterway is subject to federal oversight for pollution control reasons.

In 2015, a federal judge in North Dakota granted an injunction blocking implementation of WOTUS after North Dakota and several other states filed suit. The stay has been upheld on appeal.

Trump signed an executive order in February asking Pruitt to consider repealing the rule and replacing it.

Cramer said he didn't know the motive for closing Wednesday's roundtable, but he said one reason might have been to promote open dialogue between the attendees.

Representatives of a group called Democratic Socialists of America shouted questions at Pruitt as he left NDSU, and they also peppered Cramer, Hoeven and Burgum with questions, though they went unanswered.

A group spokesman, Zac Echola, said their intent was to underscore that "secret" meetings are undemocratic and that climate change is an emergency. Pruitt has come under fire from some for questioning whether carbon dioxide from human activity is a driver of climate change.

The Dakota Resource Council said in a report released Wednesday that the EPA is rolling back pollution safeguards for gas and oil wells in North Dakota, rollbacks the council argues will impact health and the environment.

Pruitt told WDAY TV that it shouldn't have to come down to a choice between jobs and environmental stewardship.

"We have been blessed with natural resources in the state of North Dakota, coal, natural gas," Pruitt said. "Our goal should be to use and cultivate and harvest those natural resources, but with an environmental stewardship, a mindset for future generations we need to serve as well. We need to power the world, we need to feed the world."

Dave Olson
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