Lawmakers scrutinize proposal to create new ND environmental department

BISMARCK, N.D. -- A proposal to create a new North Dakota state agency was met with concerns that it grows government and doesn't include adequate input from the state's agricultural sector.

Sen. Jessica Unruh, R-Beulah, right, sponsored Senate Bill 2327 to move the current duties of the state Health Department’s Environmental Health Section into a new cabinet-level agency called the Department of Environmental Quality. Mike McCleary / Bismarck Tribune

BISMARCK, N.D. - A proposal to create a new North Dakota state agency was met with concerns that it grows government and doesn’t include adequate input from the state’s agricultural sector.  

Senate Bill 2327 would transfer the powers of the Environmental Health Section in the North Dakota Department of Health to a new Department of Environmental Quality, its leader being a member of the governor’s Cabinet. Primary sponsor Sen. Jessica Unruh, R-Beulah, told the House Energy and Natural Resources Committee on Friday, March 3, that the main goal of her legislation is to maintain “primacy,” or the ability of the state to implement federal environmental regulations.

“This structure … appears to be satisfactory to the (Environmental Protection Agency) for us to be able to continue to do that,” she said, adding it “provides a very strong message to them that we are taking this very, very seriously.”

Unruh said the agriculture, coal, oil and gas industries have been “under an onslaught of federal regulations from the EPA” in recent years, and the Environmental Health Section has been the state’s “first line of defense against EPA’s overreach.”

But Pete Hanebutt, director of public policy at the North Dakota Farm Bureau, said the agriculture industry wasn’t at the table for the bill’s development and argued it creates another state agency while lawmakers are cutting budgets. A fiscal note attached to the bill doesn’t list any appropriations, but some have been skeptical the change can be made without costs.


“We may gain some bureaucrats,” Hanebutt said, adding it may open the state up to “a lot of opportunities for bad regulation.”

The 153-page bill passed the Senate last month, and one critic in that chamber worried that such a change was moving too quickly through the Legislature. The Department of Health submitted six pages of amendments to the committee Friday, including some typo fixes.

Committee Chairman Rep. Todd Porter, R-Mandan, assigned a subcommittee to work through the legislation at the end of Friday’s meeting.

‘They only get bigger’ Dave Glatt, the environmental health section chief for the North Dakota Department of Health, said the new department would continue to implement the same environmental protection programs as the existing section. Establishing the new department will take up to two years, according to Glatt.

The Environmental Health Section has 174.25 full-time equivalent employees.

Glatt disputed assertions that creating a new department will result in more regulations or a “mini EPA,” noting the Legislature passes laws that set boundaries for any state agency.

“As identified in this proposed legislation, no new programs would be created or eliminated,” Glatt said in prepared testimony. “It would maintain the status quo but under a different and separate organizational structure.”

Unruh argued the bill would reduce bureaucracy by eliminating two boards, the Air Pollution Control Advisory Council and the State Water Pollution Control Board, and creating an Environmental Review Advisory Council to counsel the department. Its members would include representatives of local governments, manufacturing, the liquid and gas fuels industry and agriculture, along with the state engineer and state geologist. The Health Department also proposed adding the Game and Fish Department director.


But Rep. Mike Brandenburg, R-Edgeley, submitted an amendment to give agriculture three representatives on the council instead of one.

“Agriculture is still the player that needs to be involved, not just with one member,” he said.

Sarah Lovas, a farmer and agronomist from Hillsboro, N.D., agreed that agriculture needs to be involved. She also worried the bill would grow government.

“Government agencies, once they’re created, they generally never get smaller,” Lovas said. “They only get bigger and they only create more regulations.”

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