Newspaper article THE JOURNAL RECORD

Eaton Faces State's Environmental Regulation Mess

Newspaper article THE JOURNAL RECORD

Eaton Faces State's Environmental Regulation Mess

Article excerpt

Maybe Patty Eaton isn't the sort of person to say it this way, but as Oklahoma's first cabinet secretary of the environment, it's pretty quickly become clear to her that state environmental regulation is a mess.

"I guess I've been surprised at the complexity of various rules and regulations, and when you add to that all the various people doing something in that area, it's no wonder there's confusion," said Eaton, who is also the new executive director of the Oklahoma Water Resources Board.

"And it is bad," she said. "There's no question, it's a problem. Now we just have to find a good, workable solution."

The "c" word - consolidation of environmental regulatory functions now performed by eight state agencies - is among the top three issues Eaton has identified as priorities during her first weeks on the job.

A bill to do just that, House Bill 1506 by State Rep. Don McCorkell, D-Tulsa, was sandbagged in the House Committee on Energy, Environment and Natural Resources. Committee members voted for an interim legislative study including members of that panel and the corresponding Senate committee.

"One of the problems is that there are so many different agencies, each one with a concern about what is going to happen in their specific area, that it's hard to write one single piece of legislation to deal with every one," said Eaton, a former water and sewer commissioner for the City of Tulsa.

One way to address the reorganization might be to take it in steps, spread over a period of up to two years, answering agency concerns along the way, she said.

Asked for an example of an agency concern, Eaton said the water resources board has a valid one.

"They feel the water resources board is responsible for maintaining water quality in the state. That's one of their major charges, and they do it very well," she said. "They have high standards and strong enforcement. . ."

Eaton acknowledged that oil and gas producers were responsible for a large part of the opposition to House Bill 1506.

"I would hate to see the whole idea die because of oil and gas," she said.

"I would like to see the plan move ahead, and with time, work with the oil and gas producers and encourage them to join in.

"We probably don't need another study," Eaton said. "What we need is a planning process. We need to say, `Okay, here's what's going to happen. Now, how are we going to do this?' "

If a group is formed to meet during the legislative interim to develop ways or strategies to combine the environmental regulatory activities, then that's a task that needs doing, she said.

"Just to have a task force to say `Should we or shouldn't we,' that's been done and the answer was, `it should,' " Eaton said.

Gov. Henry Bellmon during his term of office convened an environmental concerns council, which recommended an environmental reorganization. In addition, House Bill 1506 was the result of an interim legislative study.

As for the current legislative session, Eaton said it would be helpful if lawmakers could signal their intent to move in the direction of reorganization.

The Oklahoma Wildlife Federation said it would mobilize for a possible initiative petition drive on the issue. However, if the Oklahoma Legislature passed a concurrent resolution in support of consolidation, "it would send a message to the general public that they support the idea and would obviate any need for a petition," Eaton said.

Gov. David Walters continues to support consolidation, she said.

On another issue, Eaton said she sees the need for a statewide, long-range plan for environmental policy. What she envisions is a "living document - not something that you write and put on a shelf, but something to be used as you make legislation and get new business and industry, and is revised - a working document. …

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