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Great Lakes Article:

Federal inaction leaves states to scramble on environment
USA Today
02/08/04


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 a retreat.

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 consumption elsewhere.

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 pollution.

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.

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