SELC cleans up at the Supreme Court

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SELC cleans up at the Supreme Court

Caleb Jaffe, staff attorney at the Charlottesville-based Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC), planned to leave work early on Monday to prepare Seder, the traditional Jewish meal celebrating the start of Passover. But something at work intervened to foil his plans. It was another celebration, this one spontaneous, after the news that the SELC had won a unanimous decision in the highest court in the land. “My Episcopalian mother-in-law had to step in and prepare the Seder dinner,” Jaffe says with a grin.


Environmental attorney Caleb Jaffe had more than one reason to celebrate on the first night of Passover.

That’s because Jaffe and his colleagues spent the rest of the day fielding media calls on the impact of the Supreme Court’s landmark decision handed down April 2. The Court sided with the SELC in its case against North Carolina-based Duke Energy, one of the country’s largest utility companies and operator of some of the oldest and dirtiest coal-burning power plants. The SELC argued that the utility company violated the Clean Air Act by failing to install modern pollution controls when it renovated its old plants to keep them running more often. The renovations substantially increased the plants’ annual emissions rate of air pollutants.

By holding that the annual rate of emissions is what matters, the Supreme Court decision sets the stage for cleaning up 40-year-old coal-fired plants still operated by utilities across the country. SELC says these dirty old plants are the single biggest source of the country’s air pollution.

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“It was a huge day for the environmental community,” Jaffe says, as it was the first time in 35 years that the Supreme Court had even agreed to hear a case brought solely by an environmental group (as opposed to the EPA or a state attorney general). And it was a huge day for the SELC specifically, which won a unanimous decision in its first appearance before the Court.

By sundown, Jaffe was able to enjoy his Seder dinner (courtesy of his mother-in-law), but by sunup on Tuesday, the hard work began again. The case now goes back to the lower courts on Duke Energy’s other defenses. Jaffe says, “We’ll keep slogging it out to make sure the [Supreme Court’s] ruling is enforced.”

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