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Working to clear the air 

At the Arkansas chapter of the Sierra Club.

GLEN HOOKS: Working against dirty coal and for clean air on behalf of Arkansans. - BRIAN CHILSON
  • Brian Chilson
  • GLEN HOOKS: Working against dirty coal and for clean air on behalf of Arkansans.

Glen Hooks isn't gunning for Leslie Rutledge personally, but as director of the Sierra Club's Arkansas chapter he is definitely getting under her skin.

That's because the Sierra Club has succeeded in beating back Rutledge's campaign to stop the Environmental Protection Agency from promulgating rules that put clean air and water before power plant profits.

Rutledge, who has intervened in six multistate lawsuits with other Republican attorneys general against the EPA since she took office last January, says she's trying to protect jobs and consumer pocketbooks. The Sierra Club says she's wasting taxpayer money and not working for taxpayers' interests.

In 2014, the Sierra Club prevailed in a Clean Air Act suit aimed at reducing haze in national parks. The 1999 rule required states to write plans on how to reduce haze, but Arkansas's was not accepted; the Sierra Club sued the EPA for failing to write a plan for Arkansas in the absence of an approved state plan. The rule is to protect the Caney Creek Wilderness Area and the Upper Buffalo; the plan targeted the two dirtiest coal-fired plants in Arkansas, White Bluff and Independence. Rather than pay the $1 billion it would cost to install scrubbers at its White Bluff plant, Entergy will retire the plant by 2027. It will still operate the Independence plant. Rutledge argued in federal district court that the Sierra Club didn't have standing in the suit, but Judge Leon Holmes ruled it did. That case is also on appeal.

The club has also stymied Rutledge's efforts to stop an EPA rule that requires power plants to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions by 36.5 percent. The EPA's Clean Power Plan gives the state until 2030 to reduce CO2; the rule was made final last month. Rutledge first sought to intervene while the rule was still in draft stage; she did not succeed, nor did she prevail in her second attempt in U.S. Circuit Court. She will, of course, keep fighting. A stakeholders group, meanwhile, made up of representatives from the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality, the Public Service Commission, elected officials and others, including Hooks, are going forward writing up the state's clean power plan.

When the Sierra Club successfully won a battle that would close a loophole that exempted the state's power plants from emissions rules during plant startups, shutdowns and malfunctions, Rutledge said the EPA was "choosing to put the political interests of the Sierra Club ahead of Arkansans" and filed an appeal of the EPA rule.

Hooks would argue that it is Rutledge, not the Sierra Club, who is acting out of political interests and that Arkansans, mindful of their personal health as well as the planet's, want cleaner industry and cleaner air. A switch to cleaner power has economic benefits, too, Hooks says, as the development of new technologies brings new jobs online.

"We were told for so many years that Arkansas was just not right for solar power, for wind power. That's just nonsense. It's happening in all our neighbor states," Hooks said. Now, he said, utilities have figured out how to make money producing clean power, and the business is getting more competitive.

If Arkansas could wean itself off coal, it would go a long way toward meeting the carbon dioxide reduction rule and replacement technologies could "create thousands of jobs," Hooks said.

The Arkansas Sierra Club runs on volunteers, Hooks said, and survives "on dues from members and grants from the national [office]." He is the chapter's only paid employee, and has been for 13 years. In those 13 years, the chapter successfully won a suit to require the Little Rock Wastewater Utility to upgrade its system to stop overflows of raw sewage. "That was a solid local victory," Hooks said, cutting in half the number of manhole overflows during periods of heavy rain. It's also been involved in efforts to protect Lake Maumelle from development and the Pegasus oil pipeline.

While it wasn't able to stop SWEPCO's construction of the Turk coal-fired power plant in Southwest Arkansas, the Sierra Club, the National Audubon Society and Audubon Arkansas got "great things" out of the 2011 settlement of the case: SWEPCO agreed to close a Texas generating unit and purchase 400 megawatts of wind energy capacity, to contribute $8 million to the Nature Conservancy, $2 million to the Arkansas Community Foundation and reimburse the plaintiff's $2 million in legal fees. It was hard for the club's volunteers to give up on the four-year fight against the coal plant, Hooks said, but "where we did not stop [the plant] we got something great for Arkansas."

Sierra Club-Arkansas has two groups, the Central Arkansas Group (CAG) and the Ozark Headwaters Group, which was the predecessor to the state chapter. For more information or to donate, call 501-301-8280 or visit sierraclub.org/arkansas.

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