November 11, 1997
by Neil S. Milligan
Coitus interruptus? Sort of: the headline referred to an announcement that Laidlaw Environmental Services (LES) decided not to seed the fertile wetlands of eastern Jackson County, Mississippi with a copious load of toxins. Just hours before a scheduled meeting, the company withdrew its application to the state Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) for a permit to build a hazardous waste treatment "plant" at the Stennis Industrial "Park."
Last December a public assembly in Pascagoula drew a crowd of 1,200 citizens overwhelmingly against the proposed facility (see Harbinger 1/7 - 1/20/97, "Mississippi Spurning"). OSCO/Laidlaw has since merged with Rollins Environmental Services, another business turning hazardous waste into money, and this required another comment period for review of information that would affect the DEQ's decision on granting a permit. For several weeks, Citizens for a Healthy Environment, Coast Sierra Club and non- affiliated residents have been urging their neighbors to attend the new meeting Thursday night. They anticipated a crowd of more than 2,000 showing determined opposition to the plan.
For their part, Laidlaw bombarded the area with a series of homey radio ads featuring a warm, soccer-mom type explaining that all plants are part of our environment, the growing green ones as well as the employing industrial ones. And, she rationalizes, while we need the industrial plants, they can produce unpleasant things that have to be taken care of, and that's why having a new plant like Laidlaw for a neighbor would be good for everyone. She didn't make clear that this pollution-emitting factory would draw toxic compounds from all over the US and some foreign countries to concentrate in this one spot. Nor were listeners told that the proposed site is only 12 feet above sea level and adjacent to a wetland expanse -- an area of tremendous importance to wildlife, offshore fisheries and local water supplies. Nor that should a major storm event strike the area the resulting toxic releases could devastate this extremely sensitive ecosystem, striking it barren for generations.
At 7 PM the parking lot of the Jackson County Civic Center was nearly barren, as well. Compared to last year's turnout, with cars overflowing into lots of adjoining businesses, it was a disheartening sight. Likewise, the few dozen people milling about inside inspired dread that the movement had run out of steam in the face of what appeared to be a "done deal." Since the permit review board had not already suggested disapproval despite sufficient reason to do so, and with the state legislature (at Governor Fordice's urging) avoiding any actions that would prevent hazardous waste sites in Mississippi, this prospect seemed all too likely. (The OSCO proposal was somehow exempted from a court-ordered injunction that put a moratorium on DEQ granting permits for new hazardous waste sites.)
Despite the good news that the greens won one, the fact that anyone showed up at all is really not surprising. Some of the attendees did not see the announcements; others saw them but thought it might just be a trick to keep people at home. Still others came because DEQ officials offered to hold a question-and-answer period -- a decision that they probably regretted.
The hall that was packed to standing-room-only eleven months ago, when 150 stood to speak against the plan, seemed empty and the amplified voices echoed eerily. DEQ official Charles Chisolm explained for the record that LES stated that they withdrew their application as a direct result of the outpouring of community sentiment against the project. When asked why an agency entrusted to act in the best interests of the public did not itself heed this outcry of objection, Chisolm offered that the DEQ was enjoined by law to ignore public sentiment when making such a decision. When pressed further, he said that without any scientific or technical reasons to recommend denying the proposal they had to approve it. He lamely added that if a proposal had been brought to the meeting it would have had "more stringent requirements" than the one LES previously offered.
Another citizen asked why, with an existing mercury contamination problem in the area, DEQ considered permitting another point source rather than reducing the amount already going into the environment. (The county and parts of the Escatawpa River basin are under a fish-consumption advisory because of mercury contamination in bass, catfish and king mackerel.) Chisolm responded that if DEQ's experts did not think it would add "a significant amount of environmental degradation" they were "forced to permit" the facility. (The application calls for annual releases of 1,900 lbs. of mercury but in case of "problem" or "accident" the allowance increases to 19,000 lbs.)
Another discussion focused on why companies with such poor records of conformity with environmental regulations would be seriously considered in the first place. (Mississippi has "bad boy" legislation that makes such compliance histories significant in considering new applications.) The excuse given was that DEQ has to take into account the good information as well as the bad. So Laidlaw or Rollins gets credit for the times when they did meet their obligations to obey laws protecting society: When they do what they are required to do to merit an operating permit, they get pardoned for the times that they don't.
While public outcry had no effect on the political appointees who run the state DEQ, elected local officials and civic leaders did listen to reasoned arguments, and that was probably the determining factor in LES's decision to withdraw. Last week, the board of directors of the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce unanimously passed a resolution that a hazardous waste "plant" was not in the best interests of the county. On Tuesday, the Pascagoula City Council unanimously passed a resolution denying LES access to the city- owned sewage treatment facility for their 270,000 gallons per day of wastewater.
Becky Gillette, conservation chair for the Mississippi Chapter of the Sierra Club, said "We hope this is a new beginning for the industrial county. Maybe now the Mississippi Department of Economic Development [that actively courted OSCO/Laidlaw about putting a waste facility here] will seek green industries." She added, "It's hard to believe it is really over...at least for us. We still have to help Noxubee County [currently under consideration for a similar facility] and the rest of the state by getting the legislature to change the tax laws that make it attractive to dump hazardous waste in Mississippi."