The federal Environmental Protection Agency got a smackdown last week from the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which effectively told the agency that its habit of enforcing some laws and ignoring others was on the verge of being declared illegal.
The ruling stems from a lawsuit filed by environmentalists, who argue that if the EPA was following its own rules, it should have downgraded metro Atlanta's air quality status from serious to severe a long time ago.
The reclassification is more than just a label change; the new status would trigger tougher pollution controls, meaning that -- hypothetically anyway -- air quality in these parts would improve.
Last week's court battle is the latest in a long line of complaints, lawsuits and general griping about the EPA that suggest that, at a charitable minimum, the agency drags its feet. But at worst, they make a powerful case that the EPA is guilty of selective enforcement, picking and choosing the laws it wants to enforce.
Either way, the end result is that when it comes to protecting the environment, lawsuits seem to be more effective than the EPA.
"We're looking at a summer of a continuous stream of high ozone ... so why does the EPA continue to shirk its duties to enforce the standards we have on the books to protect human health?" asks Ulla Reeves, an air specialist with the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. "How can EPA ignore the millions of people out there breathing very unhealthy air?"
Reeves' group is planning to file its own lawsuit against the EPA in the next three months. The group says the EPA has failed to designate 66 areas in eight Southern states as being in "non-attainment" with federal clean air standards. Seven of those areas are in Georgia.
Levels of ozone smog in the North Georgia mountains region (which includes the cities of Dalton, Rome, Jasper, Dawsonville and Ellijay) exceeded federal standards eight times this summer. In fact, the North Georgia region has endured at least five unhealthy air days every summer since 1999.
Reeves wants those areas to be designated as non-attainment so planners can start the process that will reduce air pollution.
Also, the EPA has been sitting on a petition filed by environmental groups back in November 2000 that asks the agency to modify operating permits for three Georgia power plants. EPA has accused the operators of the power plants, Southern Co., of violating the Clean Air Act by skirting laws that require stronger pollution controls. But the EPA went ahead and issued the permits anyway. Environmentalists have been waiting for almost two years for the agency's answer as to why it issued the permits.
To environmentalists, these examples are sufficient evidence that the EPA is asleep on the job. The big question, though, is why.
Part of the answer is that the EPA serves two masters: the Clean Air Act -- the most far-reaching piece of environmental legislation in U.S. history -- and President George W. Bush, who's accused by former EPA officials of restraining the agency that's supposed to protect the environment.
Bush appointed and is the boss of the EPA's chief, Christine Todd Whitman. He can fire her at anytime if she steps out of line. So far, at least two high-ranking officials in EPA's enforcement office have resigned to protest the way Bush has hamstrung the agency.
Eric Schaeffer was one. He quit in February from his post as director of the EPA's Office of Regulatory Enforcement.
"Behind the scenes, in complicated ways that attract less media attention (and therefore may be politically safer), the administration and its allies in Congress are crippling the EPA's ability to enforce laws and regulations already on the books," Schaeffer wrote in this month's Washington Monthly. "As a result, some of the worst pollution continues unchecked."
Current EPA officials claim they are doing plenty.
Kay Prince, chief of the EPA's air protection branch for the Southeast, says enforcement is proceeding as usual, that the agency imposes all laws it has the resources to enforce.
She disagrees with the argument that classifying Atlanta as severe will result in better air because Atlanta leaders have finally developed a plan that will bring the area into attainment.
"We believe the plan will bring the Atlanta area into attainment so the reclassification into severe under that scenario is unnecessary," Prince says.