MDEQ OFFICIALS SAY CUTS WILL NOT AFFECT ABILITY TO OVERSEE CONSENT DECREEBy ANTHONY WARREN,
A lack of funding and the loss of employees at the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) won’t affect the agency’s abilities to oversee water quality or consent decree enforcement in Jackson.
“We still take our mission seriously. There are certain minimum things we have to do and we will continue to do those, like water sampling in the Pearl River (and) the Mississippi Sound,” said Chris Wells, chief of staff for MDEQ Executive Director Gary Rikard.
“What we’re doing is diverting resources and if necessary (moving) people around to get (done) whatever needs to be done.”
In Jackson, MDEQ has been responsible for, among other things, placing a temporary contact advisory on the Pearl River after fecal coliform was detected there. MDEQ also works alongside EPA and the U.S. Department of Justice to monitor Jackson’s sewer consent decree.
The decree requires the capital city to bring its sewer system into compliance with federal water quality laws.
Wells spoke recently to the Metro Jackson Lions Club, where he outlined the agency’s challenges.
MDEQ has an annual budget of approximately $9.8 million, the same as it did in 1993.
In the late 1990s, the budget ballooned to around $18 million, but has been cut dramatically in recent years a result of statewide revenue shortfalls.
The agency should receive around $16.9 million a year, based on the 1993 budget and inflation.
Additionally, the agency is grappling with the prospects of replacing its aging workforce, as more experienced employees are looking toward retirement.
To deal with budget constraints, the agency has frozen some positions, while at the same time has relied on reimbursements from BP to help cover costs associated with the agency’s response to the Deepwater Horizon explosion. The 2010 disaster resulted in a major oil spill along the Gulf Coast.
“We were instrumental in the state’s response to the oil spill, but we did not receive funding to do the activities that we did ... BP has been reimbursing us over the last several years, but this year’s $2 million payment is the last payment we’re going to get from them,” he told the club.
“It’s allowed us to stay afloat in a way we otherwise would not have been able to. Our fear is after this year, with that money stopping, if the legislature isn’t able to find more money in the budget for us, we may be forced to do what other agencies have done.”
He pointed to the state forestry service, which has had to reduce its staff dramatically. “We’ve avoided that so far. We hope to not have to do a formal reduction, but it’s possible.”
MDEQ serves as the state’s chief environmental enforcement agency.
It’s roles include monitoring water quality, issuing permits for projects that could impact water quality, and monitoring dam safety.
The agency employs approximately 380 people of which 80 are eligible to retire. Within five years, that number will increase to 137, according to MDEQ Director of Communications Robbie Wilbur.
At its peak, the agency had a staff of more than 500 people.
Wells said if more funding isn’t allocated for MDEQ, the group will focus on compliance and enforcement, but it may take longer for the agency to issue permits.
“What we anticipate with permitting, is we’re still going to issue them, and they’ll be good permits (but the) timing of permit issuance may suffer. If we typically take 60 days to issue a permit, it may go up to 90 days because of a lack of resources,” he said.
Also, environmental officials may have to cut out some of the “above and beyond” activities it is currently involved in.
Above and beyond services include conducting air quality tests, like one previously done in Pascagoula.
“There was a neighborhood that had some concerns and we wanted to ... find out if there was a problem,” Wells said. “It was not in our budget – we had to scrape together some money to do it.
“That is the kind of thing that will get harder and harder for us to do.”
Funding aside, as the agency replaces its aging workforce, it is having to reorganize to accommodate millennials’ career habits.
Unlike many of the agency’s current employees, millennials, those who are between the ages of 20 and 36 according to Pew Research, are known for job hopping, or not staying at their jobs for more than a few years.
According to a 2016 study published at CNNMoney.com, millennials change jobs four times by the time they’re 32 years old. That factor works against MDEQ, which previously was organized with the idea that employees would be the agency for much, if not all, of their careers.
“We’ve been organized in a way we thought would give us a leg up. If you had a chemical plan, you had one contact for every permit you needed - one phone number you needed to call. When we came out and inspected your facility, that same face (would) show up over and over.
“One of the biggest downsides is we created a bunch of folks who were jacks of all trades and experts of none,” he said. “That became a disadvantage when folks started retiring and we had people leave early in their career.
Engineers being hired by the agency now specialize in one area, allowing them to become experts in a particular field, such as air or water.
Said Wells, “Within a year and a half, they can stop having their hand held by their manager and can do productive work.”