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Thursday, April 24, 2014

DEQ, CRM merger more likely to go through
NOAA joins EPA in saying CNMI is not in jeopardy of losing federal funds

Whether or not the House of Representatives rejects this afternoon Gov. Eloy S. Inos’ Nov. 12 executive order merging the Division of Environmental Quality and Coastal Resources Management Office, the merger is likely to proceed because the Senate—as of yesterday—has not set a session before the Jan. 12 deadline for both houses to either reject or modify the executive order.

Rejecting or modifying an executive order requires a majority vote of the members of each chamber of the Legislature.

Moreover, both the federal National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have already formally issued separate statements stating that the CNMI is not in jeopardy of losing federal grants as a result of merging DEQ and CRM.

Potential loss of federal grants is one of the reasons cited by the House Judicial and Governmental Operations Committee in recommending rejection of the governor’s Executive Order 2013-24.

The JGO Committee report is expected to be acted on in this afternoon’s House session.

Yesterday, the JGO Committee led by Rep. Christopher Leon Guerrero (Cov-Saipan) again called in DEQ director Frank Rabauliman, acting CRM administrator Ana Agulto, and other DEQ and CRM officials for further clarification.

Besides responding to questions from lawmakers, DEQ presented EPA and NOAA’s letters backing the merger.

Some House members previously poised to reject the merger had a change of heart.

Leon Guerrero, in an interview, said the important thing is that members “got clarification of the issues involved, such as whether the CNMI would lose federal funds if we combine the two agencies.”

Rep. Lorenzo Deleon Guerrero (Ind-Saipan) echoed the JGO chairman’s statement, adding that lawmakers are supposed to clarify and get more information before voting on anything.

Senate President Ralph Torres (R-Saipan), as of yesterday afternoon, has not called for a regular, special or emergency session to address the executive order.

NOAA interim acting regional lead for Southeast and Caribbean Region Bill O’Beime wrote a Jan. 8 letter, stating that “NOAA believes that, whether or not there is a merger, the Commonwealth is not in jeopardy of losing CZMA [Coastal Zone Management Act] funding.

O’Beime said states are given a good deal of latitude in how they structure their Coastal Management Programs. The critical determination that could affect funding is whether the new structure arising from the merger continues to meet the CZMA’s minimum criteria, he said.

“The existing structure has been found to be acceptable and even if a new structure were determined not to meet those minimum requirements, NOAA would work with the Commonwealth to remedy any deficiencies before any financial penalties were imposed… NOAA does not, and will not take a position on what is the ‘right’ structure for any state of territory program; rather we evaluate a chosen structure with our minimum requirements,” he added.

John McCarroll, EPA Region 9 Pacific Islands Office manager, assured that “EPA would not decrease its grant funding to the CNMI as a result of this executive order establishing the BECQ.”

BECQ stands for the Bureau of Environmental and Coastal Quality, which the governor’s executive order forms. The bureau will be headed by an administrator and will have two divisions: DEQ and CRM.

McCarroll’s letter is in addition to the letter of support from EPA’s CNMI program manager Carl L. Goldstein, sent earlier on behalf of McCarroll.

Goldstein said, “There are no other states or territories in which the EPA and NOAA programs come under one leader. This will be a first, and it can only be good.”

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