Leader Blues

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

EDITORIAL >>Polluters first, people last

No one has ever mistaken the Arkansas Pollution Control and Ecology Commission for a stern watchdog for the stateís water, air and land and those who depend upon their relative purity, but you would expect it to be a little ahead of the Flat Earth Society.

Since its creation in 1949, the commission has been as much a watchdog for industries that profit from the resources of the earth as for those whose good health depends on them, which is all of us. The legislation set up the agency to do that and despite some modest reform in Bill Clintonís last term as governor, in 1991, it still operates on the same philosophy. Industry comes first, the people last. The interests need not clash that much but sometimes they do, and every regulatory body owes its highest allegiance to the people.

It was not in evidence Friday when the commission took up a proposal by the Audubon Society and two other environmental groups to begin to regulate large-scale carbon dioxide emissions in Arkansas.

The groups asked the commission to alter its rules to remove carbon dioxide from the short list of emissions that are not regarded as pollutants and thus not subject to any restrictions. The list includes water vapor, oxygen and nitrogen, all of which occur naturally in the environment and are needed for life. A lobbying group for industries and businesses that are engaged in some form of pollution on some scale in Arkansas wrote a motion for the commission to reject the carbon-dioxide proposal and the commissioners read it and adopted it.

They said they lacked conclusive scientific evidence that carbon dioxide was harming the environment and that even if the change was needed, there should be a study first of the consequences. They said Arkansas should wait for a state commission that is studying what the state can do about global warming to make recommendations.

Any modern high school biology textbook ought to have sufficed for evidence if the commissioners have not been reading the papers and scientific journals for the past quarter-century. Carbon dioxide is by far the most prevalent of the greenhouse gases that are heating the globe and altering the earthís weather patterns.

All that the environmental groups were asking was that carbon dioxide be removed from the list of non-pollutants so that over the next year or two the agency could develop regulations for big carbon-producing industries like coal-fired generating plants, which now pump nearly 30 million tons of CO2 into the Arkansas air every year.

What undoubtedly was on the commissionís mind was that if CO2 became a pollutant, the agency would have grounds, if it wanted to do so, to reject an application from utilities to build a big coal-burning plant in southwest Arkansas to produce electricity for three states, mainly Texas. The plant will pump between 4 and 7 million tons of CO2 into the air every year, speeding global warming although by a relatively small degree on a global scale.

The federal Clean Air Act, which the Arkansas agency as well as the federal Environmental Protection Agency is supposed to enforce, requires regulation of air pollutants. The Bush administration refused to recognize carbon dioxide as a pollutant until the U. S. Supreme Court last year sternly ordered it to follow the law. Now the EPA is dragging its feet on CO2 until Bush leaves office. Even China, in the midst of a vast economic boom, is beginning to take steps to stem the growth of CO2.

But the Arkansas Pollution Control and Ecology Commission wants more proof.

That question settled so easily, the commission took up the question of whether to allow three big chemical companies and the city of El Dorado to dump 20 million gallons of wastewater a day into the Ouachita River over the protests of conservation groups and the pollution-control agency of the state of Louisiana, which say that the waste will poison the Felsenthal Wildlife Refuge and the fishing habitats and communities downstream in Louisiana that depend upon it.

Nah, the commission said, the Ouachita is probably big enough to handle the stuff without hurting anything. It was just another dayís work at the Arkansas Pollution Permission Commission.