You’re Not the King of Me: Midwest Gen Runs Afoul of the Clean Air Act

I am really proud to work for the organization that largely wrote the Clean Air Act. It stands as a fantastically important, valuable, and genius bit of legislation more than 30 years later.

And this week, we saw how some of that genius played out in Illinois.

The act is recognition that the American system is better with broad public engagement---it's better if you and I are involved rather than sitting on the sidelines as spectators on important issues. Let's be honest, government does not always have the best interests of the public in mind---occasionally other factors come into play. The Clean Air Act (CAA) recognizes that and creates a fundamentally brilliant mechanism that allows for ordinary citizens to file suit when they are threatened by pollution. One of the interesting aspects of these "Citizen Suits" is that they often come with the requirement that a 60-day notice of intent to sue be filed with the polluting entity as well as regulatory agencies.  That time period gives the state and federal agencies just enough time to re-examine the situation and evaluate if they want to take up the fight.

And it happens that way in real life sometimes.

Last month, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Citizens Against Ruining the Environment, the Environmental Law and Policy Center, the Respiratory Health Association of Metropolitan Chicago and Sierra Club, initiated the legal process towards a Clean Air Act citizen suit against Midwest Generation LLC (a subsidiary of the energy giant, Edison International), who are the folks responsible for the filth spewing, coal burning relic that is the Fisk Generating Station in Pilsen and its ugly counterpart in the Little Village neighborhood, the Crawford Generating Station. The suit could not have been a surprise to Midwest Gen. Nor to U.S. EPA, as they have filed numerous notices of violation in 2007 against the company's Midwest Gen's entire Illinois coal fleet for kicking soot out at illegal levels across the state.

And yesterday, less than a month after our suit was filed (helped, no doubt by the attention of the Washington Post, Chicago Public Radio, and Chicago Tribune) the other shoe dropped.

The U.S. EPA, Department of Justice, and Illinois Attorney General Madigan announced that they would file suit against the company for illegally emitting large amounts of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and particulate matter.  These are largely the same claims that we have raised in our 60-day notice and other forums, and we are thrilled to see the aggressive action. You can bet we will stay involved in the fight to ensure that these dinosaurs clean up or close down. And you can also be sure we will continue to sing the praises of the Clean Air Act, it remains a wondrous tool when used correctly.

In Chicago, we have a phrase that pops up a lot when self-appointed know-it-alls presume to make all the decisions or cut us out of making our own minds up about things that affect our interests:

"You're not the King of me!"

The Clean Air Act (and its close cousin the Clean Water Act) are wholly American in their assurance of citizen participation in our shared future. These laws embody this retort to governments, businesses and special interest that would make narrow decisions about public property like air and water, and cut citizens out of decisions on the public trust: we are citizens, not subjects and no one is the king of us.

Got a problem with that?