Federal inaction leaves states
to scramble on environment
New studies show mercury that falls into water can build
up in fish, creating a health hazard for people who eat
them. But the federal government has failed to adopt tough
curbs. So last week, five Great Lakes states announced
a joint effort to reduce toxic mercury pollution spewed
by coal-burning power plants in the region.
The Great Lakes campaign is the latest example of states
setting their own environmental standards - from conserving
electricity to combating air pollution - in response to
years of inaction by Washington. The trend has accelerated
recently as the Bush administration has rolled back air,
water and other environmental regulations it says hurt
businesses and cost jobs.
Federal officials contend that environmental decisions
often are best left to states, to be based on their own
interests. That was the rationale behind a decision last
fall to lift federal protections over many streams -a
move sought by developers - until a public backlash forced
The administration's argument that not all wisdom is
found in Washington has merit. In fact, the nation has
a long tradition of letting states take the lead in regulating
areas as diverse as higher education and auto licensing.
But dirty water and polluted air don't respect state boundaries.
Environmental protections in one state are inadequate
to prevent foul air from wafting in - or polluted water
from trickling in - from other states.
By abandoning its long-recognized responsibility to
take the lead in protecting the environment, Washington
leaves states to fill the void with a patchwork of rules
that are less effective than national standards.
Examples of shortcomings in state action:
Electricity conservation. The administration has resisted
calls for electricity conservation. Currently, it is embroiled
in a legal dispute with 10 states challenging its rollback
of tough efficiency standards for central air conditioners
starting in 2006. The lack of federal leadership has prompted
states to adopt their own conservation measures. Last
month, the Maryland Legislature set standards for nine
appliances, and nine other states plan to follow suit.
But overall U.S. demand for electricity does not go down
if savings by some states are offset by continued high
Clean air. In 2002, North Carolina passed a "clean
smokestack" law to reduce health problems and smog
in the Smoky Mountains caused by coal-fired plants. It
acted after several administrations in Washington failed
to help. Without similar curbs in neighboring states,
North Carolina's anti-smog effort has limited effects.
Climate change. The Bush administration's opposition
to an international treaty to curb gases believed to cause
global warming has prompted at least a dozen states -
from Maine to California - to reduce these "greenhouse"
gases individually. While such steps are well intended,
scientists believe the problem requires a global solution.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says it is improving
the environment by working with local communities to use
new technologies and economic incentives that reduce industrial
That approach falls short of the progress a growing number
of states want. While they may not solve the nation's
environmental problems by striking out on their own, at
least they show Washington how to lead.