State Studies Environmental Management Proposal

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Journal Record Staff Reporter Oklahoma's environmental regulators are fragmented and must be united, say members of a task force appointed by Gov. Henry Bellmon to study environmental issues.

The idea of a cabinet-level Oklahoma Department of Environmental Management began with a subcommittee of Bellmon's Environmental Concerns Council. The proposal was contained in legislation this year which died in an appropriations subcommittee in the Oklahoma House of Representatives.

An interim legislative study on environmental agency consolidation is scheduled to be chaired this fall by Rep. Don McCorkell, D-Tulsa.

Ross Swimmer, a Tulsa attorney and the council coordinator, said to consolidate the environmental functions would be an excellent idea.

"The problem that we face is that the environmental issues have grown very complex over the last 15 to 20 years, and as these different issues - be they air quality, water quality, landfills and everything else come up - they are routinely assigned to various state agencies to handle," he said.

House Bill 2280, co-authored last session by Rep. Cal Hobson, D-Lexington, and Sen. Herb Rozell, D-Tahlequah, would have consolidated the environmental regulation now handled by the state Departments of Pollution Control, Health, Wildlife, Agriculture and Mines.

The department would also assume some duties of the Water Resources Board, Oklahoma Corporation Commission and the Oklahoma Conservation Commission.

Swimmer said none of the state agencies were organized with the purpose of environmental regulation in mind, and they acquired those duties as sort of an afterthought.

"The way it has been addressed in Oklahoma in the past is that these different agencies work on memorandas of understanding," Swimmer said. "In other words, I sit down with the health department, corporation commission and water resources board and draft an agreement.

"Soon there are a myriad of memos on how the problem can be solved, and there's no consensus on how it should be done. It's simply stop-gap."

Michael Graves, a Tulsa attorney who has specialized in environmental law for 17 years, chaired the council committee that proposed a Department of Environmental Management.

Graves said the committee polled attorneys, environmental consultants, industry representatives and the general public on Oklahoma's environmental regulatory structure.

From this, the 13-member committee determined that people were confused.

"There were a lot of complaints, particularly from industry and from individual citizens, that they had a devil of a time trying to figure out who was trying to regulate what," Graves said.

"By looking at the different agencies and what they did, we determined there were some overlapping jurisdictions," he said.

"We found that the current confusing regulatory system is some detriment to companies locating in Oklahoma, and we didn't think having anything around that was a detriment to building our economy was a wise thing."

Swimmer agreed that the current system is harmful to the attraction of new industry.

"They come to Oklahoma and throw up their hands, and they don't know what to do," he said. "Even though our environmental quality is generally good in comparison to more populous states, companies don't know that and companies worry when they come into a situation when they cannot get an answer to questions right away. …