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EPA seeks input from North Dakota oil, coal industries

Doug Benevento, regional administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, front, and Dave Glatt, the Environmental Health Section chief of the North Dakota Department of Health, listen to leaders from the state's lignite industry on Tuesday in Bismarck. Tom Stromme / Bismarck Tribune

BISMARCK — The regional director of the Environmental Protection Agency told North Dakota oil and coal leaders on Tuesday, Dec. 4, he wants to learn more about their industries in an effort to improve regulations.

Doug Benevento, who leads the Denver-based EPA office that oversees North Dakota, invited input from industry during two roundtable discussions held in Bismarck.

Benevento, appointed to his position in 2017, emphasized his prior experience working on energy and environmental issues for Xcel Energy and leading the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

“That experience has taught me that the worst decisions regulators make is when they don’t understand the decisions they’re making,” he said.

The meetings were part of the Trump administration’s Smart Sectors program, a national effort that encourages collaborating with regulated industries.

The North Dakota Department of Health and the Department of Mineral Resources also participated. For certain environmental programs, the EPA delegates oversight to state regulators, such as the Department of Health’s enforcement of the Clean Water Act.

Benevento said his view of that relationship is not to micromanage the state agencies, but make certain they’re meeting the minimum federal requirements.

“Our job is to protect human health and the environment and we take that seriously,” Benevento said. “But we want to do that in a manner that isn’t overreaching and complies with the law.”

Dave Glatt, chief of the Environmental Health Section for the Department of Health, said the state has a great working relationship with the EPA now, but he’s concerned about what happens under the next administration.

“Our challenge today is to take positive advantage of the time we have today to look at how do we keep that pendulum from coming back too severely,” Glatt said.

Representatives from North Dakota’s lignite industry said they’d like to have certainty and clarity with regulations.

Jason Bohrer, executive director of the Lignite Energy Council, said the EPA should consider the expertise of states when developing rules. For example, the EPA's Clean Power Plan failed to consider the unique properties of lignite, Bohrer said.

Industry participants praised the EPA for holding the meetings and encouraged them to find a way to continue the practice with future administrations.

“This is a unique opportunity for us, something we’ve rarely been afforded,” said Ron Ness, president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council.

The meetings were open to the public, but the EPA didn’t announce them publicly until the day before.

Members of the Dakota Resource Council attended the oil industry meeting and pressed Benevento for a justification for proposed changes to oil and natural gas air pollution standards. Organizer Nicole Donaghy, who also works with the Fort Berthold Protectors of Water and Earth Rights, said the changes would have a tremendous effect for people living on the reservation.

Benevento said he couldn't comment on proposed rule changes while a public comment period is ongoing. He encouraged the Dakota Resource Council to submit their comments in writing.