Government and business leaders succeeded in getting Gov. Ronnie Musgrove to send a letter to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) declining to identify what areas of the state do not meet new air pollution standards.
Musgrove also asked the EPA to not designate “nonattainment” zones that don’t meet the new eight-hour standard for ozone.
“In receiving our recommendations, please be assured that the State of Mississippi is committed to a clean and healthy environment, compatible with a robust business climate,” Musgrove wrote in a letter to the EPA. “We take our commitments seriously. We want to work with EPA to find solutions that will make any designations of nonattainment the least disruptive to business development and transportation improvement while still protecting public health and the environment.”
The governor’s action has come under criticism from EPA and the Coast’s largest daily newspaper, The Sun Herald, which editorialized that the governor’s first duty is protecting air, not business. But business leaders say the governor made the right decision in refusing to identify nonattainment areas.
“Our folks are proud of the governor for the letter he sent,” said Mark Leggett, government affairs director for the Mississippi Manufacturers Association. “We think that was the only reasonable thing that he could do because this issue is in court. The U.S. Supreme Court is going to decide whether EPA can use the eight-hour ozone standards. We believe the governor was right in saying in his letter that this ought to be resolved first.”
Testing has shown that the three coastal counties and areas near Tupelo and Memphis would qualify for nonattainment status. In a letter to Gov. Musgrove, John H. Hankinson Jr., regional administrator for the EPA, said that by failing to recommend and identify areas with these high pollution levels, citizens of Mississippi may not be fully informed about the quality of the air they breathe.
EPA said that even though enforcement of the new ozone standard is pending the outcome of an appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in its 1999 decision recognized that the designation process would continue.
Lisa Mader, communications director for Gov. Musgrove, said EPA promised to work with the governor’s office and the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) before any decision is made regarding nonattainment.
“The governor is going to do what is in the best interests of the people in the state of Mississippi,” Mader said. “People are what make up businesses and industries, so those people are our first concern.”
Leggett said nonattainment zones, if allowed to stand in court, could hamper development by preventing air permits for industries that would add new sources of pollution. The designation could also mean requiring gasoline additives to reduce ozone pollution. This has been done in other areas of the country already designated nonattainment zones. The additives can raise the cost of gasoline.
“Our folks definitely understand there are consequences to a nonattainment ozone designation,” Leggett said.
Leggett said another challenge to the new standards, which industry considers overly strict, has come from the U.S. House of Representatives which passed a rider on the VA/HUD bill which bans EPA from forcing states to designate nonattainment areas until the issue is decided in the courts. Similar legislation would need to pass the Senate, as well, to go into effect.
EPA said it will continue with the process to name nonattainment areas anyway, and has the same monitoring data available as the state. Regulatory changes due to nonattainment status would be instituted three years after the designation.
The Council of Governments in Harrison County asked the governor to request an extension for designating nonattainment zones. Michael Olivier, director of the Harrison County Development Council, said new industries wouldn’t come to the Coast if it is designated a nonattainment area.
Dwight Wylie, head of the air quality division of the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), said it is possible that Congress will prevent EPA from instituting the new ozone standards. If the standards are allowed to stand, Wylie said that nonattainment would make it difficult to expand existing industries, to permit new sources of air pollution and to do transportation projects.
DEQ is involved in cooperative multi-state air studies to determine sources of the pollution. In northwest Mississippi, ozone comes from the Memphis area. In some areas of the Coast, ozone may be coming from New Orleans and Mobile.
“Other parts of the Coast we are not sure of,” Wylie said. “We can’t say all of the Coast’s problems are caused by outsiders.”
Contact MBJ staff writer Becky Gillette at firstname.lastname@example.org or (228) 872-3457.