Archived Opinion

TVA ruling could signal beginning of a new era

A recent court victory by the state of North Carolina will require the Tennessee Valley Authority to reduce emissions at four coal-fired power plants close to the state line and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Once these modifications are complete, it should substantially help clean the air we breathe every day. But we hope this decision is a tipping point in the long-term effort to force utilities, manufacturers and others to make use of the latest technologies as this country makes the move toward cleaner, smarter, and less use of polluting fossil fuels.

The TVA has long been a poster child for companies that embrace a philosophy whereby the environment always plays second fiddle to economics. Although some of its plants were modernized over the years, the utility giant also regularly relied on technicalities in the 1970 Clean Air Act to keep from meeting the law’s stated principles. Those interpretations of the law allowed TVA to modernize its plants without installing the newest pollution-control technologies.

That meant Western North Carolina and east Tennessee residents never benefited from the Clean Air Act as we should have. The dirty air from the giant coal-fired utility plants became the major contributor to dirty air that obscured mountain views, damaged trees, streams and wildlife, and led to asthma and other pulmonary-related illnesses in many residents, especially children and the elderly.

The court ruling could become very symbolic in the effort to convince other utilities and private companies to do a better job of cleaning their emissions and reducing them. North Carolina’s court case was preceded by the passage of its own Clean Smokestacks Act in 2002. North Carolina’s two utility giants — Progress Energy and Duke Energy — forged a compromise with legislators. The utilities would clean up their emissions while being allowed to slightly raise power bills to pay for the work. In other words, citizens paid to clean up their air.

The TVA ruling comes just as the Bush Administration is leaving office. That administration’s wars in the Middle East and its economic policies grabbed most of the headlines over the last eight years, but it also did little to lead with new ideas about energy and pollution. In fact, it continually sided with corporate lobbyists who argued to maintain the loopholes in the Clean Air Act.

The Obama administration is promising a different strategy. Our dependence on imported oil is seen as a foreign policy liability and our energy policy is viewed as outdated. By moving toward greener technology, smarter energy use and less reliance on coal and oil, jobs will be created and we will become the world leader in the emerging new energy industries.

North Carolina acted on its own to clean up its act, and TVA had to be ordered to do the right thing. In both cases, the right decision was made. Perhaps this victory for residents of Western North Carolina is symbolic of a new era where the flashpoint between the economy and energy doesn’t always mean sacrificing the environment. That would be a welcome change.

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