Opposing an environmental permit at the MDEQ Permit Board is a steep uphill battle, especially for people who live where there is no zoning. The Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality and the Legislature have made the permit process easy for the applicant and hard for opponents. Folks who travel to Jackson to oppose permits usually don’t know this. They believe that when they address the Permit Board, it will seriously evaluate their objections to living next to chicken houses, industrial plants, dirt car race tracks, etc. Due to the way the Board must operate, it cannot do anything but grant permits. In GRN’s recent comments to MDEQ on the new codification of its administrative regulations, we emphasized three glaring problems with the way the MDEQ Permit Board operates:
1) The people in the seats voting on the Permit Board often lack the authority to vote “no", or lack the political will to vote in a way that will frustrate job creation, the Legislature and Governor.
2) In the absence of any local zoning rules, the Permit Board’s vote on the DEQ regulatory matters contains, by default, local zoning issues mixed with DEQ regulatory issues. Many times each year a Board member says to a permit opponent: “Sorry, but we are not a zoning board.”
3) The vote is always a slam-dunk in favor of the permit applicant. Those opposing permits need to know that they must have an attorney to represent them, and be prepared to lose twice at the Permit Board before they can appeal the issue outside of the agency process to Chancery Court. DEQ staff should plainly explain this to permit opponents, early in this onerous process.
I served on the Permit Board in the Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks seat in 2003-2004. The director sent me with his authority to vote “yes” on permits or abstain, or to stop the meeting and call him to explain why he should vote “no”. It was a frustrating task. No permit was denied in those years although I heard some compelling reasons. Later, in Dec. 2011 I saw a man from Walthall County complain that the ammonia odor from existing chicken houses across the road was so strong inside his home that many nights he slept in his truck, down the road, in a neighbor’s driveway. After a member explained to him that the Board didn’t handle zoning issues, it voted to permit more chicken houses across the road.
The power to make laws and to regulate rests with the Legislature. Executive agencies like MDEQ regulate because the Legislature gives them this power. After granting this power, the Legislature controls how it is used, by setting state agency budgets and by enacting statutes that control vital agency functions. The MDEQ Permit Board functions according to statute, but it is hurting people. If the permit process is ever going to be more respectful to people opposing permits that affect their property, its value, and often their health, then the Legislature will have to change it. Until then, unhappy citizens will drive home from Jackson after losing at the Permit Board feeling angry, confused and relatively powerless to get relief from a state government process that they help fund with their taxes.
Andrew Whitehurst is GRN's Assistant Director of Science and Water Policy and covers Mississippi water and wetland issues.