The Mississippi Permit Board voted unanimously to deny the request of Gold Coast Commodities to delay an evidentiary hearing scheduled for next month that will reconsider a wastewater permit that was revoked in November.
Andy Taggart, the attorney representing the Brandon-based chemical manufacturer, filed a motion to postpone the previously scheduled April 13 evidentiary hearing. At this hearing, the Permit Board will hear sworn testimony concerning the pulling of Gold Coast’s permits to ship its wastewater into a lagoon, aerate it and spray it on land in Pelahatchie.
Taggart accused the Permit Board of being biased against his client after public records requests filed by Taggart's firm showed email conversations from September 2020 between Dennis Riecke, who was at the November meeting as the representative for the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks, and Andrew Whitehurst, the leader of an environmental group Healthy Gulf.
In a September 22 email, Riecke told Whitehurst that Gold Coast were “bad characters who should go out of business and the poster child for bad corporate citizens. Skewer them.”
Another email discussed by Taggart in his remarks was sent on September 29 from an unnamed Permit Board member to then-chairman Jennifer Wittmann that said “I hope the EPA (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) steps so they cease operations.”
He says the emails show a prejudice against Gold Coast and he said he plans to file an open meetings complaint at the Mississippi Ethics Commission against the Permit Board.
“When you have documented evidence of at least one, and in my opinion, more than one member of the permit board having made up his or her mind in advance of the decision made on November 10, and no confidence they will have a fair hearing going forward on an evidentiary basis, at least continue the hearing to give us the opportunity to investigate the Open Meetings Act violations and ask for the appropriate remedy from the Ethics Commission,” Taggart said.
Roy Furrh, the general counsel for the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality, said Gold Coast had constantly sought to delay the evidentiary hearing with several motions, one of which was filed on March 7, which was a Sunday.
Since Gold Coast’s wastewater permit is the subject of an appeal, it remains in affect despite being revoked until after the Permit Board conducts an evidentiary hearing to hear the appeal.
He said the attempt to impugn the motives of board members who indicated concern over Gold Coast compliance issues were an attempt by Gold Coast at “tactical intimidation” He also said since the MDWFP sent a different designee to the Permit Board at Tuesday’s meeting, it rendered the issue of that member being biased against Gold Coast moot.
“Of course, Gold Coast wants to continue (delay) this hearing,” Furrh said. “Of course, they want to delay having to paying a penalty before the Commission (for Environmental Quality, a separate body from the Permit Board). They want to put off losing their permit as long as they can.”
Gold Coast transforms used cooking oil and soapstock — which is a byproduct which originates from the refining of soybean and other oils — into animal feed and biodiesel using sulfuric acid at its facility in Brandon. The wastewater from this process is required to be mixed with caustic material and must be kept hot to prevent it from congealing into a pipe-clogging sludge.
The wastewater generated by the processes used by Gold Coast make it highly corrosive, which can damage sewage pipes, which the city of Brandon alleges in a lawsuit filed in 2018. In addition, high temperature required to keep the wastewater in a liquid state makes it even more so.
Taggart told the Permit Board that without the ability to ship its wastewater to Pelahatchie or irrigate on nearby land, the company's Brandon facility is in an equilibrium state with no processes being conducted.
The two sides have been in talks since November, when the commission issued a verbal order and held an evidentiary hearing to consider numerous violations by Gold Coast Commodities over the disposal of their wastewater in Pelahatchie.
The commission’s actions in November came after the Permit Board revoked Gold Coast’s wastewater discharge permits after an investigation into odor complaints.
The DEQ put the chemical plant under scrutiny after odor complaints from nearby landowners last year forced the agency to send inspectors. A release of poisonous hydrogen sulfide gas from the lagoons sent some Pelahatchie first responders to the hospital. DEQ inspectors found that the company had dumped wastewater on the site without the required aerators being in operation.
Numerous violations catalogued by DEQ inspectors at the Pelahatchie site led to a pair of orders from the commission in September and October that forced the company to stop dumping its wastewater in Pelahatchie and ultimately led the commission to order the company to drain the lagoon