Why the Race for Attorney General Matters for Environmentalists

By Jen Walling
Executive Director, Illinois Environmental Council

I’ve never imagined an Illinois where Lisa Madigan was no longer attorney general. She has been an immutable figure on the Illinois political landscape for two decades, and a reliable decision-maker and partner on many of the environmental community’s campaigns. When embarking on a campaign, we begin by assessing potential opponents, allies, and other stakeholders. Perhaps it has been taken for granted that nearly every time we have performed this analysis over the past twenty years, we have been able to add the AG to the ally column.

I am proud to say that I’ve personally worked with the staff of the attorney general’s office to keep lead out of children’s drinking water, petroleum coke out of people’s lungs, and animal wastes out of drinking water. We’ve worked to regulate high volume hydraulic fracturing, provide people with the right to file citizen suits, allow public comment on environmental permits, and stop quarries from leaching hazardous materials into groundwater.

Of course, there have also been disagreements. For example, environmentalists strongly disagreed with the AG’s staff on the impact of proposed energy efficiency programs on consumer bills. But even when there were points of contention, we appreciated that we were dealing with a responsive and respectful office that was clearly invested in protecting the public interest.

AG Madigan
Attorney General Madigan receiving 2017 Environmental Leadership Award for her office’s work on Preventing Lead in Drinking Water Act

For all the reasons given above, we are grateful to Attorney General Lisa Madigan for her years of service.

Going forward, however, those of us working to protect the environment are left with many questions about the future of the office, namely, how will future occupants fulfill their duty as the legal officer of the state, with the constitutional obligation to provide and maintain a healthful environment for the benefit of this and future generations?

As the legal office for Illinois, any future Attorney General should pursue the following strategies to protect the people of Illinois:

  • Pursue judgments against polluters that pay back the public for the damage that was caused. Pollution causes real damage to private and public property. The attorney general, in enforcement of environmental cases, can pursue strong judgments that repay the people of Illinois instead of the polluters. Penalties should cover the costs to clean up all environmental damages, instead of only requiring profitable polluters to pay for facility upgrades.
  • Challenge weak or harmful federal environmental laws, and support the strong ones. Attorney Generals across the country have been on the frontlines in responding to President Trump and USEPA director Scott Pruitt’s tearing down of life-saving environmental laws. Attorney General Lisa Madigan strongly supported the Clean Power Plan and the benefits that it would have provided Illinois. The next attorney general will be required to step up and take on basic Clean Air and Clean Water enforcement that the federal government has abandoned.
  • Aggressively lobby the legislature for laws that make it easy to prosecute polluters. Vague or ambiguous state statutes can make it more difficult for the attorney general to link pollution back to the party that caused the damage. Even worse, some legislators pursue legislation that would make it impossible to link damage from pollution to the party that caused it. Statutes can even be purposely designed to limit the ability of the public to challenge projects that will damage their community – or limit the ability to challenge to only those living in wealthy communities. A great attorney general will vigorously protect the ability of her or his office to challenge polluters.
  • Defend the public interest. While the attorney general represents agencies and other branches of state government in lawsuits, the AG is the attorney that represents the people of Illinois and the broad public interest of the state. Our clean water, clean air, and natural spaces are all part of the public trust. The decision to pursue policies that truly support the public interest instead of the special interest is up to the person in office.

Every single action that the environmental community has undertaken in the last fifteen years has been with the understanding that we have an attorney general who will back us up. Attorney General Lisa Madigan has been a champion for the environment in her office, in the courts, and in the state legislature. She has pursued strict punishments for polluters, won judgments that paid the people of Illinois back for their loss of natural resources, and pursued legislation that gives the public more rights to challenge polluting projects in their community. We hope that the next attorney general will learn from these examples.

While we are all deeply interested in the Governor’s race in 2018, the attorney general’s race must also be a top priority for every environmentalist in Illinois. Together, IEC organizations will make sure that every AG candidate not only knows that the environmental enforcement division exists, but that it continues in the legacy of Attorney General Madigan.

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