EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt visited Grand Forks Wednesday as part of a series of closed meetings to discuss his agency's state-centric regulatory approach.
Pruitt was on tour in the Red River Valley to meet with representatives of the ag and energy industries and talk with stakeholders about his efforts to rescind and rewrite portions of the Waters of the U.S. rule expanded under President Barack Obama.
His schedule included stops in Fargo at North Dakota State University, at a farm west of Grand Forks and at the Energy and Environmental Research Center at UND. Pruitt was joined for the day by North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., and Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D. The events were held behind closed doors and members of the public and media were turned away by police.
With the ag and energy industries serving as pillars to the North Dakota economy, EPA rules like WOTUS have been unpopular, considered by some to be federal overreach. In 2015, North Dakota joined a lawsuit with more than a dozen other states to block implementation of the expanded WOTUS rule.
At the EERC, Burgum, Cramer and Hoeven seemed happy with the prospect of a less adversarial relationship with the EPA under Pruitt's leadership. The men spoke of a sense of "partnership" with the new administrator that signaled an increase in state authority over environmental regulations.
In reference to the WOTUS rule, Hoeven connected that approach to the concept of federalism.
"The states are the laboratories of democracy and should have a very important role, as the governor can tell you, in determining how that's actually implemented," he said.
Burgum said he had felt in his dealings with the administrator a "real desire to listen" and learn from North Dakotans. The governor felt that Pruitt had walked away from the meetings with a better grasp of the importance of agriculture to the state, as well as a deeper understanding of the work being done at the EERC with carbon capture and sequestration technologies.
For most, Pruitt's desire to listen was strictly aimed at those invited to Wednesday's closed doors discussions. As in many of his other appearances across the country, Pruitt's visit to North Dakota was sealed off from the public and media.
The main meetings in Fargo and Grand Forks both featured an invitation-only roundtable discussion attended by Pruitt, the three politicians and local leaders. Both roundtables were followed by a scheduled 15-minute window of press access to Burgum, Cramer and Hoeven. Pruitt did not attend those sessions, and a representative from Hoeven's office said Pruitt was expected to leave Grand Forks immediately after finishing the visit at UND.
Pruitt's motorcade arrived in the mid-afternoon at the EERC. The vehicles drove past a handful of protesters gathered across the street from the center and parked in the rear lot of the building. Pruitt then exited a car and was escorted inside.
His visits were hosted by Burgum's office, which released notice to the press last week. In the initial media advisory, press was invited to attend the last 15 minutes of both roundtables. By Tuesday, that invitation had been rescinded. Pruitt spoke with a few media outlets Wednesday-including WDAY-TV in Fargo-but his press liaison did not respond to a Herald inquiry about speaking with the administrator in Grand Forks.
When two Herald reporters went to the EERC before the start of the event, they were asked by representatives of Pruitt to leave the grounds before EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox threatened to call police, whom he referred to as "security."
A UND Police officer then arrived to insist the building and its grounds were private property before demanding the reporters move away from the center's front door. An officer had earlier told a pair of protesters the same thing, asking them to cross a road away from the center. The EERC is not private property and is owned by UND.
Most of the protesters were members of the Dacotah chapter of the Sierra Club, a group which covers the state of North Dakota.
Betsy Perkins and Mike Lukes were among those waiting outside the EERC for Pruitt to arrive, as was Todd Leake, the chapter president and an area farmer. About seven protesters eventually assembled on North 23rd Street, hoping to talk to Pruitt about climate change and voice their support for the WOTUS rule.
Leake, who was not invited to either of Pruitt's meetings with ag representatives, brought along a box labeled "chlorpyrifos," referring to a pesticide that has had a checkered past with the EPA and acts as a neurotoxin in humans. Pruitt declined to ban the substance earlier this year, which prompted a recent U.S. Senate bill to push it out of use. As he stood across the street from the EERC, Leake said the pesticide is an unnecessary danger. He was frustrated to not get the opportunity to tell that to Pruitt.
"Nobody ever listens to the damn farmers about the dangerous stuff," Leake said.