Originally created 08/20/04

Jail EPD chief, lawyer urges



WARRENTON, Ga. - A former state attorney general asked a judge Thursday to jail the director of Georgia's Environmental Protection Division over her agency's refusal to approve a controversial landfill in Taliaferro County.

"No matter how much we dislike something, we have to obey the law," said former Attorney General Mike Bowers, now in private practice and representing Complex Environmental Inc., the Atlanta firm proposing the 1,030-acre landfill.

Mr. Bowers and his law partner, Josh Archer, contended Thursday that EPD Director Carol Couch conspired with landfill opponents to find some way to reject the permit request, when in reality the company had met all legal obligations required to move forward with the project.

"Your honor, they were looking for a way to satisfy folks who are against this project, and they came up with this cockamamie thing about not meeting the solid waste management plan," Mr. Bowers said during three hours of often-heated arguments before Judge Purnell Davis.

Complex Environmental spent three years conducting environmental studies in hopes of establishing the solid waste site, despite widespread opposition from nearby residents and Taliaferro County commissioners.

Last fall, after an extended legal battle, Judge Davis found Commissioners Charles Ware, Jane Hubert and Evelyn Kendrick guilty of contempt for refusing his order requiring them to sign a "letter of assurance" needed by the company before a formal application could be submitted to EPD.

The letter, which commissioners eventually signed, attested that the project was in compliance with the county's Solid Waste Management Plan.

But after a review by EPD's technical staff, Dr. Couch concluded April 16 that the project "would be inconsistent with local solid waste management plans" and rejected the company's request.

Mr. Bowers contended Thursday that Dr. Couch should be held in contempt of court because her conclusion goes against Judge Davis' finding that the project does conform to the local Solid Waste Management Plan.

Dr. Couch, who was subpoenaed to testify, denied that there was any plot to help residents block the project. The denial of the permit, she said, was made after an independent, state-level review of the application.

Mark Smith, the chief of EPD's land protection branch, also was subpoenaed Thursday.

Mr. Archer accused him of being "very accommodating" to landfill opponents.

Mr. Smith replied that the application was evaluated according to normal protocol, which clearly showed an incompatibility with the local solid waste plan.

"I made no distinction on how I treated this landfill, and it was no different than any other landfill," he said.

Mr. Bowers noted that EPD has never rejected a landfill on the basis of incompatibility with solid waste plans, but Dr. Couch - who became EPD director in November - said one of her goals was to provide independent analysis and verification of material submitted to the agency.

Dr. Couch's lawyer, assistant Georgia Attorney General Per Normark, told Judge Davis there should be no contempt finding because the court order was a directive to county commissioners, not the head of a state regulatory agency.

The judge's order from Jan. 13, 2003, required commissioners to sign a letter that could be forwarded to EPD, he said.

"As soon as the county did that, Complex Environmental got exactly what it asked for," Mr. Normark said. "Then it went to the EPD director."

Mr. Bowers urged Judge Davis to find Dr. Couch in contempt for "saying phooey" to his order, and asked that she be "thrown in a common jail" until she agrees to approve the permit request. He vowed that his clients will appeal the case all the way to the Supreme Court if necessary.

"Your honor, don't make my client spend tons of money just because a bureaucrat doesn't want to follow the law," he said.

Judge Davis said he will review the arguments, testimony and written filings and issue an order later.

Reach Rob Pavey at 868-1222, ext. 119, or rob.pavey@augustachronicle.com.