It would not be prudent for Mississippi to dissolve its Department of Environmental Quality and permit the Environmental Protection Agency to assume monitoring, according to an EPA official familiar with the state’s regulatory programs.
Jimmy Palmer, EPA administrator for Region 4, based in Atlanta, was one of several guest speakers at the annual Mississippi Farm Bureau’s annual summer commodity conference, held in Jackson, Miss., July 7.
He previously held the top position in Mississippi’s DEQ before receiving a presidential appointment to the EPA. Recently, Palmer responded to a letter of inquiry by Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour asking what consequences would result if the state legislature, because of budget funding problems, disbanded the DEQ.
Palmer relayed talking points from the 15-page letter at the meeting. “It (DEQ) has been here for over 30 years, and it is today and it will continue to be critical for the regulatory programs that EPA has delegated to Mississippi,” Palmer said.
For the DEQ to dissolve would “not be a good thing,” he insisted.
Since 1974, Mississippi and a handful of other states have distinguished themselves as leaders in standards for environmental monitoring, ranging from clean water to hazardous waste. In fact, Palmer noted that Mississippi and Florida today are the only two states east of the Mississippi River that meet all federal ambient water standards.
He said the idea that a state government such as Mississippi disbands its environmental quality department to better balance its budget has been discussed in the past.
“We need to keep the work here, but we also must deal with the reality that it is very expensive work and we are approaching another budget season and another battle over funds, a battle over how the state can continue to pay for the work that five Mississippi agencies do.
“How will we pay for that?”
While the EPA would be compelled to intervene and perform the duties of monitoring clean environmental standards, including issuing permits to new industries, the move would bring unwelcome changes to state governments and new business, Palmer said.
Citing examples, he said such a change would result in longer timetables for permit issuances; higher violation fees would be immediately implemented; and the state would lose its entire share of funds generated from violation fees.
“In Mississippi, when DEQ levies a fine, the money goes into a special fund called the pollution emergency fund. That money is used to clean spills on roads and other helpful projects,” Palmer said. “The money in Mississippi stays here for beneficial purposes everyday, but the federal fine money goes directly into the U.S. Treasury.”
Perhaps most unfavorable, Palmer said the state would lose compliance oversight. “It is better if it’s someone local than someone in Atlanta,” he said. “Questions about compliance can be answered by state laws or by EPA, with federal case laws in federal courts. And that is a huge, huge, huge difference.”
Palmer said that if state legislatures are scraping for more funds, the search is even more rigorous in Washington, D.C. “You cannot reasonably expect more federally regulated money,” he said.
Furthermore, Palmer said, the current presidential administration has placed more emphasis on getting results from federal organizations such as the EPA.
“The screws are getting tighter to the point an agency like EPA is under more pressure than ever to get results,” he said. “When you start looking at performance outcomes, that is the beans (for evaluating). We are now going to be awash in a sea of bean counters.
“More and more the beans are being generated by the states because they are shouldering the loads on permits, because states are shouldering most of the loads on the compliance side, on planning and monitoring activities.”