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January 7, 1997

Mississippi Spurning

by Neil S. Milligan

"You are not welcome here" was the overwhelming sentiment a month ago when the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) held an open meeting in Pascagoula. The purpose of the meeting was to accept public comments on a permit application submitted by Canada-based hazardous-waste handlers OSCO/Laidlaw. OSCO/Laidlaw already operates 55 hazardous-waste facilities in 23 states. The company proposes to build a facility for treating aqueous hazardous wastes in the Bayou Cassotte vicinity, near where Chevron, Mississippi Phosphates, and First Chemical have existing operations, an area called the Stennis Industrial Park. Tellingly, none of these companies already present at the site are in favor of Laidlaw as their neighbor.

[Note: Almost every reference to the proposed facility used the word "plant," as in "hazardous waste plant" or 'the Laidlaw plant." "Plant" was mentioned 96 times according to the transcript of the meeting, and we were not talking about a garden. I find this to be the case at meetings in Mobile as well: "chemical plants" and .. paper plants" and "effluent from the plant." The dictionary lists, after three organic definitions, references to mills and machinery, but I can't help wondering how that convention came to be. Regardless, I suggest that we take back the meaning and insist that artificial constructs be called what they are: air-pollution factories, water-pollution factories, poison emitters, whatever. If we don't demand that, soon any type of chemical-based industry will join Bald-Cypress and Swamp Chestnut Oak on the list of "obligate wetlands plants." If it does not operate on sunlight and put out cleaner air and water than it takes in, it is not a plant. Likewise, clusters of industrial intrusion should not be called parks.]

Environmental activists worked hard to get the word out to Jackson County residents, urging them to come to the meeting and speak their minds about the plan. Sierra Club members were at the community center early, working with DEQ and asking them to set up in the largest room available, convincing them that there would be a large number of the public attending. They were right: over 1,200 people showed up, and 150 signed up to speak about the proposal. (if that doesn't seem impressive, go to any public meeting in Mobile County and count noses.) The meeting started a few minutes past 7 p.m. and ran until after midnight, with many in the audience leaving before they had a chance to speak - or hear all the comments - because it was a weeknight. Only three people spoke out in favor of the proposal: Ed Wilson, chief consultant for Laidlaw and former CEO of OSCO: Toby Cook, representing the technical staff to the permit board of the State Pollution Control Office (he indicated that they were recommending the permit be granted); and Dan Zwerg, an instructor in environmental technology at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, trained in municipal waste-water treatment. (OSCO/Laidlaw paid all expenses for a trip to Nashville for four persons of influence, including Zwerg, and these four have been some of the loudest proponents of Laidlaw's plan.)

When Laidlaw merged with OSCO it acquired among its holdings a similar treatment operation in Nashville and another in Crowley, La. The Nashville facility had its operating permit revoked by the local board of health, though it was later appealed and reinstated by the courts. Becky Gillette of the Mississippi Gulf Coast Sierra Club found that the Crowley site averages one explosion every six months resulting in a fire "that burns for days." Responsible for infractions at 28 facilities, including sites in Ohio, Louisiana, North and South Carolina, and Tennessee, OSCO/Laidlaw has a total of 146 violations, accumulating more than $6.2 million in fines - not counting violations with no fine assessed. Louisiana DEQ recommended a $1 million fine for offenses at the Crowley site - the largest in Louisiana history.

The DEQ technical staff did not justify its decision to recommend approval, and made some questionable statements, such as the claim that not having a hazardous-waste treatment facility in Mississippi was "a disadvantage." Another was that the "demonstration of need" justified siting such a facility because Mississippi does not currently have one, while ignoring the nearby treatment capacity of the one in Nashville and our own in Emelle. (in fact, the EPA informed Mississippi in 1994 that it had no need for additional hazardous waste treatment capacity.) Still more illogical was the claim that OSCO/Laidlaw passed the compliance history and background check (the state's so-called bad-boy review) despite .significant environmental problems at six facilities in Louisiana, Ohio, South Carolina and Tennessee."

Local opposition is organized under the banner of Citizens for a Healthy Environment (CHE); membership includes environmentalists, doctors, lawyers, small business owners, blue-collar workers and local residents. (Three years ago, CHE was successful in getting Pascagoula out of a medical-waste incineration plan, even though city leaders had to pay to escape from the contract.) A handful of CHE members divided the lengthy permit application among them, and each one found in his or her section reasons why the permit should be denied. Some of their arguments are painful in their clarity, for example pediatrician David Dugger's point that if "our local aquatic ecosystem is already so overloaded with mercury that there is now a fish consumption advisory" we should not permit an additional air discharge of 1,900 pounds of mercury annually. CHE members did their homework and offered irrefutable reasoning why DEQ should deny the permit, or at least grant an additional five weeks of comment period in order to bring more evidence to light. (The comment period will close on January 3, 1997, unless public pressure - or Alabama pressure - forces Mississippi officials to extend it.)

Other important concerns include discrepancies between earlier documents justifying the site and permit applications understating the resulting impact. Only six southeastern states are listed as sources now, but importation of hazardous wastes nationwide and from foreign ports is mentioned elsewhere. Businesses like this operate on economies of scale: once they are in place, expansion is almost inevitable because more volume brings more profit.

They also provide hazardous-waste generators a cheap and convenient outlet, removing any incentive for them to eliminate or reduce their toxic byproducts or find safer substitutes. The permit contains neither a disaster plan for off- site accidents nor any traffic flow-control for road and rail deliveries to prevent prolonged storage in containers on sidings and roadsides.

Attorney and CHE member John Ford noted that under Title V of the Clean Air Act, DEQ is obligated to give Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) notice of the permit application and allow ADEM time to respond. (A Federal requirement for permitting major sources of air emissions is to include any state within fifty miles.) Telephone conversations with ADEM's compliance division prior to the meeting revealed that ADEM had not been notified. Follow- up conversations disclosed that the reason for this non-communication was that the operating parameters would limit emissions and thus semantically transform a "major source" into a "synthetic minor source" and so remove the Title V obligation. (Ford disputes this, claiming DEQ is "in denial.") This sleight-of- hand restrains participation of Alabama interests even though the two states share common wetlands where the facility is to be located and even though the drinking water reservoir for Mobile, Big Creek Lake, is sixteen air-miles away. Perhaps Waste Management in Emelle will have more sway; they should be concerned that a facility in a state with lower hazardous waste fees - $10 per ton in Mississippi compared to $42 in Alabama -- may siphon off some of their business.

The Harbinger, Mobile, AL