BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — Environmental regulators in North Dakota have signed an agreement with the federal government that allows companies to avoid fines by self-reporting certain minor infractions, but not if they have potentially caused serious environmental damage.
The infractions could include companies forgetting to submit paperwork or neglecting to secure a necessary permit for a facility, said Dave Glatt, director of the North Dakota Department of Environmental Quality. Facilities won't get a pass on more serious contamination issues, he said.
"If it created a public health hazard or environmental hazard that exceeded standards, that would be beyond the self-audit," he said.
The department signed the memorandum with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Monday, the Bismarck Tribune reported. A North Dakota law passed in 2017 gives companies the choice of conducting self-audits at power plants, oil and gas sites, and waste facilities and then reporting issues to the state.
"We will continue to do inspections, we still will continue to do our fieldwork, but this is another tool in the toolbox to have a greater degree of compliance," Glatt said.
North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem addressed the matter in a letter to the EPA in February, writing that the law "does not restrict North Dakota's ability to obtain injunctive relief" and it "does not grant immunity for criminal penalties."
Exemptions do not apply when a company neglects to fix the violation or when the problem is part of a recurring pattern, Stenehjem said.
EPA Regional Administrator Gregory Sopkin said in a statement that the agreement should assure companies can deal with state regulators "without micromanaging from EPA."
While a few companies have already made use of the measure, others were waiting for the state to sign the agreement with the EPA to ensure that no government entity could use what they reveal against them, Glatt said.