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VOL. 124 | NO. 99 | Thursday, May 21, 2009

Palmer Rejoins Butler Snow After Stint as EPA Appointee

By Rebekah Hearn

Print | Front Page | Email this story | Email reporter | Comments ()
Position: Attorney
Firm: Butler, Snow, O’Mara, Stevens & Cannada PLLC
Basics: Palmer has rejoined the Environmental Practice Group at Butler Snow after completing an appointment as the regional administrator for Region IV of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
“A major benefit I gained from being the regional administrator for Region IV was learning how EPA and other federal agencies work on the inside. This will be invaluable now as I deal with the federal system in private practice.”
– James Palmer Jr.

James Palmer Jr. has rejoined the Environmental Practice Group at Butler, Snow, O’Mara, Stevens & Cannada PLLC after completing his presidential appointment as the administrator for Region IV of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Region IV is the largest of the 10 EPA regions. It includes Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Kentucky, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Florida.

Palmer practices in environmental law, natural resources law, energy law and administrative law. He received his bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from Mississippi State University and his juris doctorate from the University of Mississippi.

Palmer served as the executive director of the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality from 1987 to 1999, the executive director of the Office of General Services in the Mississippi governor’s office from 1986 to 1987 and as special assistant attorney general in Mississippi’s Office of the Attorney General from 1980 to 1984.

His stint with the EPA lasted from 2002 to earlier this year.

Among other issues, Palmer has handled on- and offshore boundary disputes, matters involving the Mississippi River Interstate Boundary and federal-state disputes regarding nuclear waste disposal.

Q: What initially attracted you to practice environmental law?

A: During my first four years of engineering practice after graduating from MSU – to meet the requirements to become a registered professional engineer (PE) – I was very active in the American Society of Civil Engineers and the Mississippi Engineering Society. As I attended meetings of these organizations, I noticed how much complaining I heard about lawyers the engineers were working with: “They can’t speak our language,” “We spend a lot of money educating them just so they can represent us,” and so forth. So one of the main reasons I decided to go to law school after obtaining my PE registration was to be able to meet a particular need I saw in the engineering community.

Also, as the director of resource planning at the Mississippi Board of Water Commissioners (now the Bureau of Land and Water Resources in Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality), I was responsible for administering and enforcing the 1956 Water Rights Act, which regulates the use of surface waters statewide. I also started the Mississippi dam inspection program after Congress passed the federal dam safety law in 1971. So when I went to law school at Ole Miss in 1974, I already had a keen interest in water resources law. Thus, with my combined engineering/law background, I immediately became the resident “environmental lawyer” when I became a special assistant attorney general in 1980. My career in the field of environmental mushroomed from there.

Q: Has having a background in civil engineering helped your environmental practice?

A: Absolutely. When people, including my dad, asked me why I was leaving engineering to become a lawyer, I quickly replied that I wasn’t leaving engineering at all; I was going to enhance my qualifications significantly by being able to practice both professions. And that’s what I have been doing for 32 years. I use both my engineering and legal training every day. Two of my colleagues in our environmental practice at Butler Snow are also engineers. One is a civil engineer, like me, and the other is a chemical engineer; two of us also are PEs.

Q: As the regional administrator for Region IV of the EPA, what responsibilities did you have?

A: Simply put, I was responsible for the administration and enforcement of all federal environmental laws in EPA Region IV. Many of these federal programs have been delegated to the respective environmental, health and agricultural agencies in the eight states in Region IV, but EPA must then provide oversight and assistance to help the states manage these programs as, literally, agents of EPA. As our co-regulators, the states also have to implement their respective state environmental laws, many of which do not have federal counterparts. Also, I was personally responsible for the Region IV budget, which, over my seven-year tenure, totaled more than $600 million.

Q: Do you feel your experience with the EPA strengthened your abilities as an environmental lawyer?

A: Without a doubt. Being a hands-on person, I involved myself very heavily in not just the policy aspects of environmental law and the many EPA programs, but also many of the highly technical issues that emerged in rulemakings, permit reviews and enforcement cases. Also, I worked closely with EPA’s Criminal Investigations Divisions, Office of the Inspector General and the Office of Suspension and Debarment. Working with the states was also a top priority of mine, because of my 25-plus years in state service in Mississippi. I learned a lot about the state environmental laws and programs. Beyond this, a major benefit I gained from being the regional administrator for Region IV was learning how EPA and other federal agencies work on the inside. This will be invaluable now as I deal with the federal system in private practice.

Q: What particular challenges have you handled involving interstate river boundaries?

A: In the Attorney General’s Office, I handled two cases, one involving Louisiana and the other involving Arkansas, before the U.S. Supreme Court. These were fascinating controversies, because the key issue was the precise location of the interstate boundaries between Mississippi and these states along the Mississippi River. Since the boundary is ambulatory, it moves as the river meanders over its flood plain. Very important state and private interests – land ownership, law enforcement jurisdiction, etc. – were at stake, and I drew upon my engineering background. I was also involved in marine boundaries involving Louisiana and Alabama and the boundary between state and federal waters off the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

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