Sierra Club: The Planet--1996
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The Planet
Courts Rule for Rockies, Songbirds, Sea Turtles

By Marie Dolicini

Courts Rule for Rockies, Songbirds, Sea Turtles

To protect the environment, Club activists often turn to the courts. The Sierra Club Environmental Law Program supports grassroots legal action by bringing the national clout and extensive resources of the Club to bear on issues locally - and internationally. The following examples demonstrate how effective these efforts can be in the fight for environmental protection.

Clearing Colorado Skies

In Colorado, a citizen's suit initiated by the Sierra Club's Trappers Lake Group has garnered one of the largest financial penalties ever levied against a polluter. But the real news is that the air over the Rocky Mountains is about to become cleaner.

In settlement of the suit, the owners of one of the dirtiest coal-fired power plants in the western United States agreed to spend $130 million to control pollution resulting in acid rain and snow in the nearby Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area. Mount Zirkel's snowpack, the deepest in Colorado, is contaminated with the highest levels of acid precipitation ever recorded west of the Mississippi. The 28-year-old Hayden power plant, located just 30 miles upwind of Mount Zirkel, was built with few pollution controls. When the utility's own monitoring equipment had recorded more than 17,000 emissions violations over a five-year period and the Environmental Protection Agency and the Colorado Health Department took no legal action to force a cleanup, local Club activists filled the void. "We used the Clean Air Act's citizen suit provisions to take Hayden's owners to court and win this remarkable victory," said lead volunteer Joan Hoffman.

Under terms of the settlement, Hayden must either install pollution reduction controls by 1999 to cut sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and particulate emissions or convert to cleaner-burning natural gas by 1998. "Such pollution controls should eliminate 20,000 tons of emissions annually," said Hoffman. In addition, Hayden's owners must pay a $2 million penalty plus another $2 million toward land conservation in the Yampa River Valley, where the plant is located.

"It's a historic day," said Tom Quinn, Rocky Mountain Chapter legal committee chair. "Our winning argument was that the Hayden power plant had violated emissions limits and it allowed us to push for a settlement that will protect wilderness."

Saving Appalachia's Songbirds

The good news isn't limited to the West. In the Southeast, legal activists have helped make this a historic year. Volunteers in Georgia have ensured that the sounds of songbirds won't be cut short by power saws in the Chattahoochee National Forest this summer - and their success may have national implications. Three years ago, Club activists sought to protect the rich biodiversity of the Chattahoochee and the Southern Appalachians by bringing suit against the Forest Service for its failure to protect migratory songbirds under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Originally passed by Congress in 1918 and signed by Canada, Great Britain, Mexico, Japan and the Soviet Union, the act makes it unlawful to kill migratory birds.

This May, a federal judge ruled in Atlanta that logging and roadbuilding in the state's national forests during the April-to-August songbird nesting season was in clear violation of the 78-year-old law.

"The timing couldn't be more crucial," said René Voss of the Georgia Chapter and national Lands Management Committee. "This was the first ruling under the treaty to actually stop logging in its tracks for six months." Also in Georgia, the Sierra Club won a suit that will force the EPA and the state to set total pollution limits for the state's rivers and lakes. [See May Planet, page 7.]

These rulings are just a sample of the impressive victories racked up by the Club's Environmental Law Program in recent months.

And the successes aren't solely domestic. Program staff and volunteers have recently obtained worldwide protection for highly endangered sea turtles. In a suit brought by the Sierra Club, Earth Island Institute and other groups, a federal court ruled that the U.S. law banning shrimp imports from countries whose fishing fleets use large nets without "turtle excluder devices," or TEDs, was not being enforced. While U.S. shrimpers are already required to use TEDs, the U.S. government was enforcing the tough turtle-protective law against only 14 of the more than 70 nations with turtle- endangering shrimp fleets. The Sierra Club was instrumental in obtaining a court order this spring forcing the United States to commence full, worldwide implementation of the law.

"This is a stunning victory," said Law Program Director Alex Levinson. "Shrimp nets used without the devices needlessly cause the deaths of over 100,000 endangered turtles each year."

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