The Pollution Wars

A Bold Tactic in the Pollution Wars. [Editorial]
[The New York Times, September 20, 1999, page A20].

New York's Attorney General, Eliot Spitzer, announced that he intends to sue 17 coal-fired electrical power plants in five Midwestern and neighboring states to force them to reduce their emissions of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide, two pollutants responsible for much of the smog and acid rain that has damaged New York and other Northeastern states. Prevailing winds from the Midwest carry these pollutants eastward.

This initiative comes at a time when virtually every effort to negotiate voluntary agreements between Eastern and Midwestern states on the subject of wind-blown pollutants has been stymied and at a time when the United States Congress seems to be in no mood to give the Clean Air Act needed strengthening, even relative to provisions concerning acid rain which are widely acknowledged to need tightening.

Mr. Spitzer will be basing his suit on a provision of the Clean Air Act which stipulated that older power plants, otherwise exempt from pollution controls governing new plants, would be required to comply with the new standards if they were "significantly upgraded in order to lengthen their life span." A six month investigation of federal and state records turned up 17 plants which had made substantial capital improvements in order to boost their power output and extend their operating life without any appreciable investments in pollution controls.

While investigations by the Environmental Protection Agency and various states will very likely turn up other offenders, Mr. Spitzer feels that his list hits some of the most egregious polluters. One power plant in Ohio emitted more nitrogen oxide than the combined total of New York's 21 dirtiest plants. These Midwestern plants are also the largest source of mercury emissions which poison fish and other wildlife and are a major contributor to global warming. The power industry, resistant to outside interference, argues that the capital invested in the older plants was simply spent to maintain their reliability.

While there is no question that New York can demonstrate that it has suffered from wind-blown pollution, which, under the Clean Air Act is all it need do in order to sue, persuading a Federal Court to require an individual power plant to install expensive new pollution control equipment as result of the suit could be very problematical. The electrical utilities industry is very capable of defending its interests as it sees them.

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