Friday, April 13, 2007

Idaho: Wide open for pollution

Idaho still lags far behind other states in showing its concern about the possible impact on humans and the environment of smokestack industries, a political attitude inconsistent with claims by officials that Idaho is looking to the future.

This is forcefully brought to mind again by news that seven Northeastern states are joining to force the federal government to impose tougher standards on mercury emissions that spread past state borders from coal-burning plants.

Whereas other states now must deal with the reality of poisonous industrial emissions, Idaho has the luxury of having no such plants. But neither does it have a forward-looking policy on what to do when industry comes knocking with proposals for coal-burning plants.

The state needs a law requiring state-level review of any such applications and the power to reject them.

As matters now stand, a corporate giant can roll into any Idaho county and get permission to build a coal-fired plant from county commissioners, none of whom would have the technical expertise to determine a plant's impact on human health or the environment far downwind from the plant in other counties.

Idaho legislators had their chance to enact such a law to create a plant siting authority made up of competent technical as well as economic professionals. However, lawmakers demurred, apparently on the theory that tomorrow's problems can be dealt with later.

That is foolish reasoning. Energy producers right now undoubtedly are considering Idaho as a likely site for new plants to generate power for export to nearby states if not locally. Their fastest route to approval is to find a rural county where county commissioners could be dazzled by a plant operator's promises of new tax revenues and jobs, with no questions asked about mercury emissions and other effects on health of surrounding counties.

If Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter and state legislators harbor the notion that plant siting is a nonexistent problem, they might turn to the current crisis in Idaho's roads and the Transportation Department's empty financial cupboard. The sorry state of roads and highways did not suddenly occur one day to everyone's surprise.

Idaho roads have been deteriorating and proving to be inadequate for years and getting worse.

Had politicians planned with a prudent financing and fuel tax program, Idaho would now have a pay-as-you-go program in place and roads that meet growing demands.

That sad lesson should bestir lawmakers into creating a state body that can head off industrial emissions problems now bedeviling states that didn't look or plan. It's not too late.

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