On April 20, 2004, over 300 of Rochester, New York’s most environmentally aware citizens gathered to share information and to hear Peter Lehner, head of the Environmental Protection Bureau of the state Attorney General’s office. Lehner’s topic was air pollution, specifically New York’s efforts to work through the courts to achieve some relief from upwind discharges that result in an ongoing fouling of the state’s air. This is a matter Lehner knows well since he and his boss, Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, are leading a coalition of eastern seaboard states in suing midwestern power plants for the damage their pollution causes: the $100 billion per year, for instance, in health costs nationally ($400 million in New York).
As comprehensive as Peter Lehner’s answers were, however, the sheer volume of informed questions that he fielded served to remind the crowd that New York’s Great Lakes Basin faces a mounting list of environmental problems. Issues such as cleaning up New York’s six Areas of Concern – areas identified by the US and Canadian governments as the worst toxic hot spots in the Great Lakes, the continuing invasions by aquatic invasive species that cost billions, and a proposal to make the St. Lawrence Seaway usable by larger vessels.
What emerged from Lehner’s discussion is that the incremental progress made by the Attorney General’s office has largely been the result of forcing adherence to existing statutes through litigation made possible by the “citizen suit” provisions of the clean air act, clean water act, and other federal laws. There is no replacement, however, for solid laws that address specific and emerging environmental problems – particularly on the state level. There are signs that New York may be waking up to its current Great Lakes environmental imperatives.