- Associated Press - Monday, June 22, 2015

COLUMBUS, Miss. (AP) - Entities in the Golden Triangle area have paid nearly half a million dollars in environmental penalties in fewer than five years.

Since 2011, the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality has issued $463,547 in penalties for violations of permits.

Industries in Lowndes County are the primary penalty receivers; Lowndes businesses have paid out $388,177 in penalties in four years in 10 instances. In Clay County, seven penalties that total $45,430 have been issued.

Mississippi State University was issued a $9,500 penalty April 1 for having excess nitrogen oxide emissions while burning natural gas and fuel oil at the MSU Mill. MDEQ offered MSU to use $7,125 of that money to purchase modern boilers via the Supplemental Environmental Projects.

These penalties are issued in agreement orders from MDEQ, and are used in lieu of a formal enforcement hearing. Chris Wells, the chief of staff with MDEQ, said that holding a formal enforcement hearing is rare. He has spent seven years enforcing environmental policy for the agency.

MDEQ is overseen by the Commission of Environmental Quality, a seven member panel appointed by the governor. Ultimately, the commission arbitrates the enforcement policy and has the power to assess a maximum of $25,000 in penalties per day, per violation. The commission can and does delegate enforcement authority to MDEQ.

Wells said that penalties typically come about in review of monthly reports submitted by businesses. The agreement orders are part settlement, part compliance. When companies are issued an agreed order, part of it is directions to get back in compliance with state laws.

“Our goal in the enforcement area is to get compliance,” Wells said.

He said the money collected from agreement order penalties goes into the Pollution Emergency Fund. This money is separate from the state general fund and is controlled by MDEQ. In the event of an oil tanker were to crash and an environmental cleanup group is hired, this fund pays that bill.

One Columbus manufacturer accounts for more than a quarter of all penalties.

Weyerhaeuser Columbus Cellulose Fibers has paid five penalties amounting to $149,500 since 2011. They were most recently penalized $17,500 on April 1 for failing to comply with applicable emissions limitations and operating limitations and failing to conduct compliance testing to demonstrate levels of carbon monoxide were within limits.

Wells said a penalty is not the first move after finding a company out of compliance. In the case of Weyerhaeuser, he said there could be more issues there that were resolved before a penalty was deemed appropriate.

“A lot of we do is behind the scenes to get people back to compliance,” he said.

Wells said repeat offenders in the same year do tend to receive extra charges to their penalties. He said that some issues with Weyerhaeuser had come out of misunderstandings and the company has adjusted and returned to compliance. He did not excuse their lapses.

“A Weyerhaeuser, for instance, we know that they have in-house environmental folks,” Wells said. “We know they know better. Some mom and pop type places may not have those resources, but that doesn’t excuse them either. We develop, over time, a relationship with the facilities we regulate, and we can be quite frank with them.”

David Phillips the vice president and mill manager of Weyerhaeuser Columbus, said his company takes the penalties seriously. Many of the penalties stem from the constant changes in equipment, he said.

“The Columbus mill is constantly investing capital and people resources to meet new and existing state and federal regulations,” Phillips told The Dispatch via email. “As part of that investment, monitoring new and existing equipment for compliance is an on-going, daily process. So, when an equipment test fails, we identify the problem, put steps in place to resolve the issue and don’t wait until a fine is imposed to make changes.”

The majority of Weyerhaesuer’s penalties have come from not testing within permitted limits for particulate matter, the sum of all solid and liquid particles in the air, many of which are hazardous.

“The fact that the fines tend to focus on particulate matter are the result of the circumstances,” Phillips said. “Any change to our system, whether upgrading equipment, new regulations, testing methodology or during periods of shut-down, technical adjustments have to made to the operations airflow and pollution control devices - this takes testing. If you fail a test for any reason, you’ve exceeded the permit and a fine is imposed regardless if your next test is in compliance.”

Phillips said Weyerhaeuser is committed to working within state and federal regulations going forward.

“Our operations utilize environmental management systems, certifiable to ISO standards to meet regulatory requirements and reduce our environmental impact,” Phillips said. “We audit compliance with environmental laws and regulations routinely at all our operations. Weyerhaeuser tracks and reports publicly its environmental performance. The Columbus mill is a leader in environmental performance among pulp mills in North America and has invested considerable capital to improving environmental performance. These investments have resulted in significant reductions in air emissions, chemical use, water use and solid waste generation.”

The single largest penalty in the area was levied against Severstal North America for violations at its Columbus plant. MDEQ penalized Severstal $135,000 in May 2014 for a series of emissions violations and incomplete compliance records in 2011 and part of 2012.

From 2012-2013, Severstal released 215 pounds of cadmium compounds according to the National Library of Medicine; cadmium is a carcinogen commonly found in batteries.

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Information from: The Commercial Dispatch, http://www.cdispatch.com

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