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Zaleski: A meeting ready-made for polluters

Jack Zaleski, The Forum Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

Whenever elected officials collude to close a meeting, it smells bad because something rotten usually is going on. That's what happened last week when North Dakota's governor, senior U.S. senator, U.S. congressman, and a select group of farm leaders met with federal EPA administrator Scott Pruitt to discuss the federal Waters of the U.S. rule, known as WOTUS.

Reporters were locked out, suggesting this high-powered cabal was not interested in an open, diverse discussion of the effects—real or mythical—of regulation to protect waterways from pollution.

Gov. Doug Burgum and Sen. John Hoeven should know better. Congressman Kevin Cramer, the happy warrior who boasts he's willing to listen to anyone at anytime, violated his own standard. Farm leaders, whose recidivistic views of regulation suggest they want to be able to pollute where and when they want, likely were quite happy to do their thing without challenge.

As explained by the governor, the meeting was closed out of respect to the EPA administrator, which apparently means respect for the people of North Dakota got second billing. It was revealing that only like-minded voices regarding water regulation were in the room. Whatever the meeting was about, it certainly was not about a balanced review of water quality. It certainly was not about requiring (omigod, regulation!) that polluters of lakes and streams be held accountable.

The water regulation issue in North Dakota is not partisan. While most of the attendees at the Pruitt lovefest were Republicans, not all were. And U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, the state's most prominent Democrat (not at the meeting) has introduced legislation to roll back provisions of WOTUS. She's a former environmental lawyer, emphasis on "former." Her spin on the waters rule is that it is unworkable and that farmers and ranchers need "relief." From what?

Farmers can ditch and drain with impunity because of loopholes written into state law by farmer-legislators. They can dump water of any quantity and quality on downstream neighbors and get away with it because county water boards are dominated by ditchers and drainers. They can load their land with fertilizers and other chemicals that run off into streams and lakes, stimulating algal blooms, some of which are toxic. They can plow the land black without regard for soil erosion and runoff. They can plow and plant to the water's edge, again without regard for damage to lakes and streams.

Relief? From what? Doing the right thing, apparently.

Not every North Dakota farmer and rancher is a polluter. Many are excellent stewards. They understand they are temporary occupants of the land, and that they have a responsibility to leave it better than they found it. They might not welcome all regulation, but they grasp the truth that without effective regulation, some operators will mine the land for today and ruin waterways for the future. Don't believe it? Take a tour of the state and its waters. It ain't pretty.

So, the rank odor wafting from a roundtable with governor, senator and congressman? That's the stench of polluted water. Under the current EPA, and the tilt of North Dakota's elected officials to do controversial environmental business behind a closed door, the smell will get worse.

Zaleski retired in February after nearly 30 years as The Forum’s editorial page editor. He will continue to write a Sunday column. Contact him at or (701) 241-5521.