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Concerns linger about stormwater drainage districts

MMA pleased with progress in 2003 legislative session

One of the most controversial bills that died on the last day of the 2002 legislative session — an environmental self-audit privilege bill — was one of the first bills passed in the 2003 session, allowing Mississippi to retain federal funding and a state delegation to administer a lead-based paint program and providing manufacturers some breathing room.

Last year’s bill would have significantly altered the environmental self-audit privilege bill Mississippi lawmakers passed in the mid-1990s, which gave manufacturers protection from civil lawsuits and criminal proceedings based on documents prepared as a result of voluntary environmental audits of their facilities.

“Environmental self-audits are completely voluntary, not required by the state or EPA (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency),” said Jim Haffey, director of environmental and taxation affairs for the Mississippi Manufacturers Association (MMA). “When legislation passed almost 10 years ago, all companies asked for was not to have the audit documents used against them in a civil lawsuit. Although I’ve heard it wasn’t intentional, the legislation also provided them protection from criminal proceedings. Around three years ago, EPA said if criminal protection wasn’t removed from the self-audit privilege law, they’d start taking away programs. So we met with EPA and DEQ (Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality) and came up with draft legislation we thought everyone could agree on … then trial lawyers got involved.”

Tug-of-war

In 2001, a bill that would have eliminated criminal protection but included controversial changes to civil protection died in committee. In 2002, a similar bill that would have eliminated civil and criminal protection was introduced. By the time the legislation had been through more than 30 revisions, including dropping the criminal protection part of the bill, adding stipulations for repeat violators, and a battle between trial lawyers and MMA over civil protection, lawmakers passed the bill including civil protection by one vote the day before the regular session ended. The next day, lawmakers reconsidered it and the measure failed by four votes.

Last summer, EPA removed the state’s delegation to administer a lead-based paint program, withdrew federal funds and mulled eliminating other programs, including the underground injection well program.

Gov. Ronnie Musgrove considered including the legislation in the special session on tort reform, but legislative leaders reached an agreement to remove the criminal stipulation, rework the civil clause and address the bill early in the 2003 session.

State lawmakers passed Senate Bill 2001 “to remove availability in criminal cases and conform to meet EPA requirements” on Jan. 16; the governor approved it four days later.

“If it didn’t pass, we would have continued to lose the state delegation on lead paint, which affects all contractors and those certified to remove lead paint from buildings,” said Haffey. “We weren’t gung-ho on removing any protection from manufacturers, but criminal protection was never intended anyway. We’re very glad to see that resolved.”

The governor approved another environmental bill, House Bill 1084, on March 18.

The bill provides immunity to purchasers or owners of property associated with the EPA National Priorities List.

On March 23, Musgrove approved House Bill 701, which provides a credit for taxpayers who convey land or interests in land for conservation easements. “That’s helpful for property owners, who sometimes pay $10,000 to $15,000 for transaction costs,” said Haffey.

Stormwater drainage fees

Concerns linger about Senate Bill 2899, legislation to create the Harrison County Stormwater Management District Act. At press time, the bill, which had been double referred to local and private and finance committees, was still moving through the legislative process.

“We’re almost sure that if the bill passes, other counties will use it as a model for legislation to implement locally,” said Haffey.

The bill, which exempts forestland, was initially written to grant almost unlimited property tax authority to Harrison County, but state lawmakers removed that taxing authority. A mechanism to raise fees remained intact, said Haffey.

“EPA Phase II regs came out in March, requiring some cities and counties to do additional work for stormwater drainage, most of it involving educating communities about the proper use of storm drains,” said Haffey. “Even though it may be burdensome, we believe almost everything required can be done within an existing budget. The City of Clinton did it.”

MMA feared that Mississippi was following suit to Tennessee, where lawmakers introduced legislation to implement a drainage district to tack user fees to water bills for property owners based on the size of roofs and parking lots, said Haffey.

“I don’t know if this legislation passed, but it would have raised a lot of money for drainage work passed off as an EPA mandate,” said Haffey. “Some counties have said that if it doesn’t pass, they’ll simply raise millage, but millage is closely watched.”

Environmental conference

MMA is gearing up for the sixth annual environmental conference, scheduled June 10-11 at the Crowne Plaza in downtown Jackson. The two-day event will focus on technical environmental education, including how to draft a Stormwater Pollution Prevention Plan. Moderators include representatives from well-known Mississippi companies such as Delphi Automotive, Peavey Electronics, Georgia-Pacific, Armstrong World, Entergy, and Wellman, Inc. EPA regional director Jimmy Palmer and state DEQ director Charles Chisolm are featured keynote speakers. Beloved Mississippi entertainer Paul Ott is scheduled to perform during the luncheon.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at mbj@thewritingdesk.com.

About Lynne W. Jeter

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