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Time to Applaud the "New" EPA

One year ago in this column, I called on Environmental Protection Agency chief Stephen Johnson to resign for letting politics, not science, guide his agency's decisions. Nor was I alone—10,000 EPA employees were in open revolt for the same reason. Johnson was defying the Supreme Court's ruling that his agency should move forward on climate change and was refusing to approve California's forward-looking controls on climate-altering pollution.

Today, I am calling on all Earthjustice supporters to join with me in thanking his successor, Lisa Jackson, for steering the EPA back on course with a string of good decisions, especially her action last week aimed at regulating one of the most toxic side effects of burning coal for power: coal ash.

Coal ash, as you'll recall, became a national story just before Christmas when 1.1 billion gallons of it burst out of a holding pond in Tennessee, flooding more than 300 acres up to 25 feet deep with toxic levels of arsenic, lead, mercury, selenium, and boron. Earthjustice has been working for years to prevent this from happening, but not even this Exxon Valdez-scale disaster moved the Bush EPA to act.

Fortunately, Jackson sees things differently. Only days after getting a letter signed by Earthjustice and 108 other green groups, she has promised to issue proposed coal ash regulations. She will be assisted by draft regulations we wrote and submitted to the EPA about two years ago.

Getting the federal government to take coal ash seriously is a major victory as we push forward with our goal of ending coal's toxic life cycle from how it is mined to how it is used. And we are optimistic about our coal work despite last months disappointing decision by federal judges, allowing the most destructive form of coal mining—mountaintop removal—to continue without regards for its devastating effects on communities and mountain streams. Across the land, there are numerous signs that King Coal is in retreat.

We successfully blunted coal's expansion in Kansas and in Florida, and we are challenging plants proposed in New Mexico, Wyoming and elsewhere. Our legal, policy and public education work has helped fuel a national trend away from coal as evidenced by the 100 or so permits for plants nationwide held up because of growing opposition.

Moreover, public resistance to new coal plants and the promise of tighter federal regulation has led investors to back away from new coal plants, just as the federal government's Rural Utilities Service has.

Now it's time for the new EPA and Congress to make dramatic investments in renewables, conservation and efficiency ... and it's our job to make sure that the coal industry's considerable money and influence and the false hope of "clean coal" don't sidetrack government action.

Amid the vigilance, however, let's not forget to be grateful. Join me in dropping Lisa Jackson a note, thanking her for the good work on coal ash, and encouraging her to keep mending an agency that for the last eight years abandoned its mission and the people and resources it was established to protect.