Fed up with the Bush administration's weakening of the Clean Air Act, North Carolina lawmakers passed their own law that will reduce power plant pollution 75 percent by the year 2013.
The bill, signed by Gov. Mike Easley June 20, is a doozy.
That kind of legislation shows that, contrary to the example set by Georgia politicians, Southern states can do something about pollution from aging coal-fired power plants.
Most importantly, the legislation enables North Carolina's attorney general to sue other states and companies that allow pollution to drift across its borders.
Because Southern Co. runs three of the continent's dirtiest power plants here, and because prevailing winds carry that pollution east toward North Carolina, the state of Georgia and Southern Co. are prime candidates for air pollution litigation.
Easley sent a letter July 5 encouraging Gov. Roy Barnes to pass similar legislation. "No individual state in a region can resolve air quality problems without assistance from other states," the letter says.
Easley was polite enough to not mention litigation in his letter to Barnes. But in a telephone interview, Easley's press secretary Fred Hampton said the legislation "did open the door for legal strategies down the road."
A legal showdown would be a last resort, according to North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper.
"The first step is going to cooperation and working with other states to help enact similar legislation that will clean air for everybody, and I feel confident that Gov. Barnes and Attorney General [Thurbert] Baker will look very carefully at the North Carolina legislation," Cooper says.
"If that doesn't occur, then clearly North Carolina needs to keep its options open to other solutions. We could look at legislation ... and certainly the legal process is out there to deal with this situation."
Baker's spokesman Russ Willard said Cooper's letter wasn't a concern because it seemed to be more of a legislative suggestion than a threat.
Barnes' office confirmed that he received Easley's letter, but didn't have a comment on North Carolina's legislation.
Other states are also trying to reduce air pollution by suing power companies in other states. New York filed a lawsuit in December 1999 against 17 coal-burning power plants in five Southern and Midwestern states for emitting pollution that endangered New York wildlife and residents. Eight other states joined in New York's lawsuit.
New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer reached settlements with two of the power companies. But those negotiations, and the other lawsuits, have stalled because of Bush administration rollbacks to the Clean Air Act.
In passing its legislation, North Carolina became the fifth state to take clean air laws further than federal regulations.
The bill requires Duke Energy and Progress Energy to spend $2.3 billion to pay for pollution control equipment for 14 older, coal-fired power plants. The costs for the environmental equipment will be passed on to North Carolina consumers, though they won't really feel it. Their rates are too high now, and simply won't be lowered so that Duke and Progress can pay for the upgrades at the 14 plants.
The result will be a 78-percent reduction of ozone-forming nitrogen oxide and 74-percent reduction of sulfur dioxide, a key contributor of acid rain and particular matter, which causes haze and has been linked to triggering strokes and heart disease.
A side benefit is that the same pollution control equipment will also cut mercury emissions in half, according to some estimates.
Duke and Progress helped draft the legislation.
Georgia Power, on the other hand, prefers to wait for Bush's Clear Skies proposal, which environmentalists across the country have lambasted for weakening clean air regulations.
"Given the rules and regulations in place, and given the fact that sooner or later something like Clear Skies or [Sen. James] Jeffords' bill is going to pass, we will get to the same place they are over time," says John Sell, Georgia Power's spokesman.
When asked why Southern Co. would wait, Sell answers, "Because one thing they are taking a chance on is if the federal rules change, they [North Carolina, Duke and Progress] are locked in to this. They may have to do more."