Bill Creating Natural Resources Department to Be Filed

Article excerpt

A bill to create an Oklahoma Department of Natural Resources will be introduced next week in the Oklahoma Legislature by Rep. Don McCorkell, D-Tulsa, he said Friday.

McCorkell, who chaired a study committee on environmental consolidation, did not have a copy of the legislation available, but he called a news conference to demonstrate support for consolidating the environmental regulatory responsibilities of eight state agencies into one.

Representatives of 13 companies and environmental action groups said they support consolidation but stopped short of endorsing a bill they had not seen.

"Businesses, citizens, farmers and environmentalists are saying it's time for a change, and a very powerful change," McCorkell said.

"When we started (the study), I told the staff, `Let's try to make the existing system work,' " McCorkell said.

"We came to the conclusion that that was impossible."

Environmental regulation is now divided among the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, Oklahoma State Department of Health, Oklahoma Water Resources Board, Department of Pollution Control, Department of Mines, Department of Wildlife Conservation, Department of Agriculture and Oklahoma Conservation Commission.

McCorkell's natural resources department would be headed by the secretary of natural resources, a cabinet post that is new with the administration of Gov. David Walters and which has not yet been appointed.

It would include an Oklahoma Natural Resources Board and would have divisions on air quality, water quality, conservation and administration.

According to a diagram distributed by McCorkell, the administrative division would coordinate these functions at other agencies: forestry and pest control at the agriculture department; water quantity, revolving fund water and wastewater at the water resources board; fish kill investigations and complaints at the wildlife conservation commission; some health department matters; and oil and gas regulation and brine production at the corporation commission.

While permitting and oil production would still be regulated by the corporation commission, McCorkell said his bill would give the new agency power to enforce pollution regulations regarding oil and gas and responsibility for remediation and cleanup.

"It takes enforcement out of the corporation commission," he said.

McCorkell said the commission's 50 field inspectors have the dual responsibility to help production and promote the industry and to enforce pollution regulations.

"That's a very difficult situation to put an employee in," he said.

"We're sorting out the issue in terms of the numbers (of employees) now."

McCorkell said the reorganization would likely result in fewer employees at the administrative level but more employees at the enforcement level.

On a trip this week to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regional office in Dallas, McCorkell said he was told that Oklahoma cannot achieve primacy until the state reaches some minimum standards in enforcement personnel. …