Sierra Magazine

Lay of the Land

Pinstripes Against Pollution

State attorneys general take the Bush administration to court

They don’t wear masks and capes, but the crusading state attorneys general who have stepped in to fight the feds over pollution have become pinstriped environmental superheroes.

Fourteen states, mostly in the Northeast, have sued the Bush administration for attempting to dismantle the "new source review" provisions of the Clean Air Act. These regulations require power plants to upgrade their pollution controls when they significantly modify their operations. Claiming that the requirement is burdensome, many facilities have ignored it, and the Bush administration has decided to liberate them from the pesky rule altogether.

"Don’t allow the product of 30-plus years of bipartisan cooperation on clean air to be cast aside," New York attorney general Eliot Spitzer urged Congress last year. For years, Spitzer has been trying to curb air pollution that drifts into his state from facilities located elsewhere. Before challenging the Bush administration, he had already filed lawsuits against 17 coal-fired power plants in Ohio, West Virginia, Virginia, and Indiana under a "citizen suit" provision of the air law.

In California, Attorney General Bill Lockyer seems perpetually at war with the administration, seeking to protect his state’s air-pollution rules, the strictest in the nation. Several Northeast states (including New York) are planning to sue the EPA to force it to regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act. Water and nukes are contentious, too: Four Great Lakes states have sued the agency to compel it to control ballast water that oceangoing ships discharge; Washington State’s attorney general is suing the Department of Energy to stop shipments of radioactive waste to the state’s Hanford Reservation; and Nevada has filed its sixth federal lawsuit to stop the department from storing tons of spent nuclear fuel at Yucca Mountain.

Most attorneys general who stand up to the White House on pollution issues hail from states with Democratic governors. That has led to accusations from conservative critics that the state enforcers are limelighters looking for high-profile issues that can propel them into higher office. Thankful environmental groups contend, however, that the attorneys general are simply standing up for citizens when the federal government won’t. –Reed McManus

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