Challenging EPA to Do Its Job

During April, while many—including us—were celebrating Earth Day and learning more about decreasing their carbon footprints, GreenLaw was busy filing two lawsuits to force the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to implement the Clean Air Act of 1970. While these actions were in our pipeline for months, we were delighted that the Supreme Court helped to change the judicial climate for the environment with two decisions announced on April 2. The Court made it clear that EPA can no longer engage in foot-dragging or outright stone-walling on climate change caused by air pollution.

Cleaning Up Georgia Power Coal-Fired Plants
The first of our lawsuits was filed in the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals on behalf of Sierra Club and the Coosa River Basin Initiative (CRBI) seeking to force EPA to require Georgia Power to clean up its Plant Scherer (Monroe County), which has been operating in violation of the Clean Air Act for over twenty years. “We estimate that because Georgia Power is failing to comply with the Clean Air Act, it emits over 50,000 tons per year of sulfur dioxide beyond the legal limits,” stated Justine Thompson, GreenLaw’s Executive Director.
The federal Clean Air Act requires that Title V permits (air quality permits issued to major air pollution sources such as Georgia Power) include a timetable to bring air pollution sources that are violating the Clean Air Act into compliance. In 1999, EPA found that Georgia Power’s operations at Plant Scherer violate the Clean Air Act, but EPA has refused, despite petitions from Sierra Club and CRBI, to put Scherer on a compliance schedule.

Coal-fired power plants are responsible for emitting a host of dangerous pollutants, releasing over half of the total U.S. sulfur dioxide pollution and 18% of total nitrous oxides every year. Coal-fired power plants are also the largest polluter of toxic mercury pollution, the largest contributor of hazardous air toxics, and release about 50% of particle pollution.

Closing a Loophole in Georgia’s Emissions’ Standards
Representing the Sierra Club, GreenLaw also went to federal court seeking to force EPA to stop awarding industrial polluters illegal exemptions from emissions standards. The EPA has known, but not acted upon this flaw in Georgia’s air pollution rules since at least 2005.

Thompson explained that the state rules contain an exemption that allows companies to exceed permitted levels of pollution during special conditions of operation. Such exemptions are illegal because the Clean Air Act requires industrial plants to comply with emission standards continuously.

Sierra Club discovered the loophole when it sued Georgia Power for violating emission standards governing power plants. Almost two years ago, Sierra Club petitioned EPA to close the loophole, but EPA has never responded.

Raising the Temperature at EPA
“I find it frustrating that we have to sue EPA to make the agency do its job,” said Justine Thompson, Executive Director of GreenLaw. Thompson continued, “It seems that EPA is so busy these days creating new exemptions for polluters that it has no time left to enforce violations that it has known about for years. Over the past few weeks, the agency has proposed yet another weakening of federal standards that flouts the recent Supreme Court rulings on clean air enforcement as well as allowed a new, illegal relaxation for Alabama’s air rules. EPA has gone seriously astray, leaving no choice for citizens other than taking legal action ourselves.”