Task Force Meets over Environmental Department

Article excerpt

By Lou Anne Wolfe

Journal Record Staff Reporter

Following a summer hiatus, the state legislative Environmental Task Force met Wednesday for an update on the transfer of Oklahoma environmental regulation into a new Department of Environmental Quality.

Many lobbyists, environmentalists and business representatives attended the meeting, which was comparatively short and uneventful. The panel will next meet on Oct. 27 at the Oklahoma Bar Association auditorium, 1901 N. Lincoln Blvd.

Better state government responsiveness to pollution complaints is a major objective of the reorganization, said Patricia Eaton, environmental transition coordinator. A second major goal is for Oklahoma to gain responsibility for enforcing certain federal environmental regulations in the state, which currently is done by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The formal language for the second objective is "delegation of responsibility for National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System jurisdiction" from the EPA.

The Oklahoma Legislature this year passed a bill to consolidate much of the environmental regulation now performed by eight state agencies. House Bill 2227 was principally cothored by Rep. Sid Hudson, D-Lawton, and Sen. Cal Hobson, D-Lexington, coairmen of the task force. The new Department of Environmental Quality created by the bill will be official on Jan. 1, and the transition period is under way.

Eaton, state secretary of the environment and the executive director of the Oklahoma Water Resources Board, is overseeing the transition. The law calls for a permanent executive director for the department to be appointed by July 1 by the 13-member Environmental Quality Board. Members of that board will be chosen by the governor and will be subject to Senate confirmation.

The environmental quality department will use existing staff, furniture and equipment "to the maximum extent possible," Eaton said. Estimated budget for the fiscal year which begins July 1 is $23.39 million, she said. Eaton stressed that the figure is tentative, and is based on budgets of the divisions of the State Department of Health and the water board, which are designated to be moved to the new department.

Steve Thompson, director of the Oklahoma Department of Pollution Control, said the transition group looking at how to handle citizen complaints is working on a model where the pertinent environmental division would initiate some action and inform the citizens of it. When the pollution complaint was resolved, the agency would be required to report it in writing to the citizen who complained.

The new law requires state agencies involved in environmental regulation to develop complaint resolution rules by Feb. 1.

A major hunk of the health department will move to the environmental quality department. Included will be regulation of clean air, public water supply, emergency response, solid waste, hazardous waste, waste water, groundwater quality programsllhead protection, Superfund, state environmental lab, county sanitarians, occupational licensing, indoor air quality and asbestos. …