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Environmental Protection Agency

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.

Earthjustice is preparing to sue the Obama administration over its stunning decision to withdraw protections from northern gray wolves.

Any day now, a notice of intent to sue will be filed, giving  Interior Sec. Ken Salazar just 60 days to rescind his wolf edict or face court action.

Salazar last week said he will strip the wolf of Endangered Species Act protections, in the process endorsing one of the most infamous Bush-era actions. As a result, gray wolves could be targeted by hunters in at least two states.

Yesterday—10 weeks after a billion-gallon spill of coal ash in Tennessee—two U.S. senators challenged the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate disposal and storage of the toxic sludge.

Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Thomas Carper (D-DE) submitted a resolution requesting rules "as quickly as possible" and calling on the Tennessee Valley Authority to "be a national leader in technological innovation, low-cost power and environmental stewardship." On Dec. 22, about 1 billion gallons of coal ash burst through a dam at the Tennessee Valley Authority site in Harriman, flooding more than 300 acres with toxic levels of arsenic, lead, mercury, selenium and boron.

Communities have been exposed to the toxic substance, which presents a cancer risk nine times greater than smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. Yet coal ash is severely under-regulated and exempt from safeguards required of even municipal waste landfills. Earthjustice is calling on the EPA to eventually prohibit the storage of wet coal ash sludge and instead, mandate dry disposal in monitored landfills or safe recycling of the material.

A bunch of utility operators are still trying to convince the U.S. Supreme Court to let them pour poisonous mercury into the air - but after today, they are standing alone. The Obama administration said it is withdrawing its support, and in fact, wants the court to drop the case.

Label this a victory for Earthjustice, its clients, and those thousands of citizens eating mercury-contaminated fish and forced to breathe in all the toxic fumes that the Bush administration would allow. Over eight years, that amounted to 700,000 pounds of mercury and other toxic stuff. We sued to stop this awful practice and won, but Bush's lawyers partnered up with the utilities and appealed to the Supreme Court so that it could continue.

Now, if the Court agrees, we can start breathing easier.

Obama has quickly switched from the bump to the boot. All week he's been kicking over Bush-era dominoes, and today's was a whopper. The Environmental Protection Agency is starting to review its 2007 refusal to let California regulate greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles. The review affects 16 other states that also want to control emissions. It's a big deal that we've long been pushing for.

But, the biggest domino of all is still standing in the way of EPA really cracking down on greenhouse gases. We're talking about that shameful "Johnson memo" issued by the Bush-EPA administrator of the same name just before Obama took office. The memo told EPA employees to ignore CO2 - the single largest contributor to global warming. Without saying it, the memo also said: Ignore a Supreme Court ruling that authorizes EPA to control CO2.

What an irresistible target for a bump from Obama's boot.

Contradictory actions by the coal industry this week illustrate how treacherous the road is to a clean energy future for America.

On Tuesday, to our delight, developers of the proposed Highwood coal-fired power plant in Montana surrendered and announced that they would instead build natural gas and wind-powered generating plants. The credit for this should go to Earthjustice attorneys Abigail Dillen and Jenny Harbine, whose two years of legal action against the plant obviously paid off.

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About the Earthjustice Blog

unEARTHED is a forum for the voices and stories of the people behind Earthjustice's work. The views and opinions expressed in this blog do not necessarily represent the opinion or position of Earthjustice or its board, clients, or funders. Learn more about Earthjustice.