MDEQ drops efforts to change water regulations

Published 3:39 am Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality has backed off implementing changes in water regulations that would affect the state’s six southernmost counties, Robbie Wilbur, MDEQ communications director told the Picayune Item on Friday, confirming rumors that have been circulating to that effect.

Wilbur said, “We are not moving forward with the proposed regulations,” which some charged would be detrimental to rural water associations

He added, “We held a public hearing about the proposed regulations and listened carefully to the concerns of those in attendance.”

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Asked about MDEQ’s backing off, Kirby Mayfield, Mississippi Rural Water Association CEO, said, “That’s what I am hearing.” Told of Wilbur’s statement, he added, “That’s good news. We have sent them a letter requesting confirmation.” The association opposed the changes.

MDEQ officials, after the hearing at Pearl River Community College in Poplarville on Oct. 25, put off a decision on the proposals. Environmental agency officials later said they were delaying the decision until after Jan. 1. Sources said MDEQ officials were surprised at the opposition to the proposed change in regulations. The decision would have been made by the seven-member commission that runs DEQ.

The opposition came mostly from rural water association officials who claimed the five county utility authorities in Mississippi’s boot heel were pushing into their bailiwicks and setting the stage to absorb their customer base. The utility authorities, formed in the state’s bottom counties following Hurricane Katrina, initially were envisioned by state leaders as eventually consolidating water and sewerage operations for the entire area making up the boot heel of the state, which is most impacted by hurricanes, to protect those resources in the event of another storm as strong as Katrina.

The five counties having county utility authorities are Hancock, Harrison, Jackson, Pearl River and Stone. The law first envisaged one overall authority covering all six coastal counties, but the process, following legislative changes, eventually morphed into five separate county authorities. George County, on the state’s border with Alabama and is just north or Jackson County, refused to have a utility authority established there, which the law allowed.

Wilbur, in his statement to the Item, was referring to an Oct. 25 public hearing concerning proposed changes in water regulations by DEQ. The 150 who attended the hearing were overwhelmingly hostile to the proposed changes. Those attending included rural water association officials, private citizens and South Mississippi politicians.

Wilbur’s statement on Friday was essentially an admission that opponents of the proposed changes to DEQ water regulations had won.

Opponents aren’t through, evidently. Pearl River County State Sen. Angela Burks Hill said that there are at least three bills in state legislative committees dealing with the issue.

Sources in the State Legislature and officials close to rural water associations throughout Mississippi told the Picayune Item last week that MDEQ had backed off a push to change state water regulations.

Opponents said he proposed changes to MDEQ’s LW-2 surface water and groundwater use and protection regulations could have been used to force rural water associations to merge with municipal water systems and with county utility authorities.

The change in the regulations would have given MDEQ commissioners, who manage the agency, authority to force mergers, approve or deny drilling permits, force one system to purchase water from another, and otherwise regulate the water systems in the lower six counties, based on economic projections generated by MDEQ researchers.

The county utility authorities were formed after Katrina through efforts by Gov. Haley Barbour and the State Legislature. Programs were set up to funnel federal money to the utility authorities. Originally, $600 million was earmarked for projects, and over $400 million so far has been spent by the five utility authorities, according to a Joint Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review (PEER) study on the utility authorities released in November.

Opponents charged the utility authorities don’t have an adequate customer base to support the huge infrastructure installed in the coastal counties after Katrina.

Opponents also charged that implementation of the new regulations in the bottom six counties was a preliminary step to implementing the changes statewide.

At the  Oct. 25 hearing, concerned citizens and South Mississippi politicians asked a four-member MDEQ delegation that chaired the hearing asked why such an important hearing was held in relatively rural Poplarville rather than in Gulfport or Biloxi.

Pearl River County’ s legislative delegation opposed the proposed changes and State Sen. Billy Hudson (R-Hattiesburg), who represents much of northern Pearl River County and is now chairman of the Senate Agricultural Committee, told the DEQ officials he would seek to defund a portion of the agency “if you do not back off of this harebrained proposal.”

State Rep. Herb Frierson (R-Poplarville), who is now the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, told the hearing he would “fight you on this,” although he said he was amenable to discussing the issue with the governor, DEQ and legislative officials.

State Rep. Mark Formby (R-Picayune), now chairman of the House Rules Committee, also sent word to DEQ officials that he opposed changes to the regulations.

Also during the hearing, Pearl River County supervisors gave DEQ officials a copy of a resolution adopted by the board opposing the change. Pearl River County supervisor Hudson Holliday called for abolishing the five county utility authorities. He charged they had squandered taxpayers’ money and could not match the low rates maintained by rural associations.

Rural water association officials have told the Item that they have briefed Gov. Phil Bryant on the issue and its impact on rural water associations throughout South Mississippi, if the proposed changes were adopted.