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North Dakota leaders and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler on Tuesday announced a major springboard for the largest flood protection project in the state.

Capping his two-day visit to Bismarck, Wheeler announced the EPA's invitation for the Fargo-Moorhead Diversion Authority to apply for a loan under the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act, after a letter of interest from the Authority.

The loan would provide $510 million in low-interest financing for the $2.75 billion project, for which the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began work on an inlet last month.

"This truly is a great day for that project and it is the next step," said Wheeler, who called the Authority "on firm ground for obtaining the loan." An application could take 12 to 16 months for approval.

U.S. Sens. John Hoeven and Kevin Cramer, both R-N.D., and Gov. Doug Burgum welcomed Wheeler's announcement.

"If you're a resident in Cass County or Fargo ... you can remember this day because this is the day that's going to A. make it possible and B. lower the cost substantially going forward," the governor said.

Hoeven said the loan would add to a federal commitment of $750 million and provide major cost and time savings for construction.

"This financing ... will make a big difference in terms of the state and local share and the ultimate cost of the project," he said.

The 2019 Legislature outlined its intent for paying installments on the project and for ensuring state funding doesn't exceed $750 million.

Mary Scherling, who chairs the Diversion Authority, called Wheeler's announcement "a key piece of what we needed to go forward, and a huge win for taxpayers in Cass County."

"It really fills one more piece of the puzzle for us," said Scherling, who added the Authority will work on bringing "firm numbers" to the 2021 Legislature for the state's share.

Wheeler also was the keynote speaker Tuesday at the Great Plains & EmPower ND Energy Conference. He highlighted in a 20-minute speech the Trump administration's efforts for environmental deregulation, such as rescinding Obama-era rules criticized as federal overreach.

"Here's the bottom line: When it comes to supplying affordable and reliable energy in a manner that protects human health and the environment, the United States is the standard-bearer," Wheeler said.

He and Burgum also signed a memorandum of understanding continuing collaboration between the EPA and the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission, a coalition of 31 states chaired by Burgum, a Republican and former software executive elected in 2016.

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Reach Jack Dura at 701-250-8225 or jack.dura@bismarcktribune.com.

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Capitol Reporter