Hundreds of studies have documented that when fine particle concentrations rise, so too do emergency room visits, heart attacks, asthma, and even lung cancer. The link between fine particle pollution and mortality is well-enough established that the Environmental Protection Agency now assumes in its cost-benefit analyses that fine particle pollution can cause premature death. Each year, particle pollution sends more Americans to early graves than homicide, breast cancer, prostate cancer, AIDS, drunk driving, or terrorism. This spring, the World Health Organization reported to little notice that 288,000 people die prematurely each year in the European Union because of particle pollution. Somewhat dated estimates of deaths in the United States are lower–but still dismayingly high. In 2002, Dr. Joel Schwartz of the Harvard School of Public Health testified before Congress that particulate pollution was causing “100,000 early deaths per year–which is more than AIDS, breast cancer, and prostate cancer put together.” Even Bjorn Lomborg–a statistician who made a name for himself as a debunker of environmental alarmism–places the death toll in the United States at a staggering 135,000 premature deaths per year.

Not only is the tragic toll of fine particle pollution well-documented, it’s also no secret what the biggest stationary sources of the deadly emissions are: coal-fired power plants. Electric utilities produce about two-thirds of all the sulfur dioxide emitted each year in the United States. They also happen to be the biggest stationary source of carbon dioxide–the principal greenhouse gas implicated in global warming, the nation’s most fearsome future air pollution threat.

Near or at the top of the list of the worst individual offenders is Plant Bowen, an enormous coal-fired electric generating facility that towers above farmers’ fields several miles outside of Cartersville, Ga. In 2003, Bowen spewed more sulfur dioxide and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than any plant in the United States. Bowen alone emits more sulfur dioxide than all the power plants combined in 12 states and the District of Columbia–including large states such as California, Washington, and Oregon. And it would take more than three million cars to emit the 21.35 million tons of carbon dioxide Bowen’s smokestacks belched out in 2003, according to the U.S. PIRG Education Fund. In 1999, the U.S. Justice Department publicly fingered Bowen as an industrial scofflaw. The feds sued Georgia Power and Southern Co.–the owner and parent company of Bowen, respectively–alleging that Bowen and nine other Southern coal-fired plants failed to install modern pollution controls as required by law when they made upgrades to plant equipment.

In short, Bowen sounds on quick impression as if it might be the nation’s next Love Canal, or Times Beach, the Missouri town tainted by dioxin, or Hinkley, the California town made famous by Erin Brockovich. In those cases, local citizens, alerted to toxic threats by news reports, lawyers and environmental activists awoke an indifferent community and the nation, forcing polluters to pay out cash settlements or remediate waste sites. But Bowen isn’t Love Canal or Times Beach. In fact, the nearby town of Cartersville and its 16,000 residents are strangely indifferent to the pollution pouring out of Bowen’s twin smokestacks, and a decade’s worth of scientific studies and environmental consciousness-raising has had little effect on the attitudes of local residents or plant employees.

The old paradigm through which environmental activists tried to take on powerful and deadly polluters relied on three separate but equally important tactics: campaigns to stoke public outrage by linking the illnesses and deaths of particular victims to a particular polluter; aggressive lawsuits brought by the private torts bar; and prescriptive federal regulation to penalize non-compliant localities and industries. Yet the persisting pollution at Plant Bowen shows how ineffective the old paradigm has become in dealing with the most important emerging environmental threats to public health, from fine particle pollution to global warming to agricultural runoff–all cases where it’s difficult to tie specific polluters to individuals who have been harmed. Fortunately, changes now afoot at Bowen also point the way to a solution–one in which a modernized regulatory regime uses market-like forces to let federal officials pick up the work that lawyers and environmental activists can no longer effectively accomplish.

In January, the Georgia Environmental Protection Division came to Cartersville to hold a meeting on Georgia Power’s reapplication for operating permits for Plant Bowen and to answer questions from the community about the plant. About 30 people showed up for the meeting at the modest auditorium at the Cartersville Civic Center. The half-empty room was mostly sprinkled with Georgia Power employees and members of various environmental groups, and the two sides spent much of the meeting making their cases: Bowen had failed to modernize its plant to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions, the green activists said; Georgia Power representatives retorted that Bowen complied with environmental regulations and had a lesser health impact than pollution from wood fires, meat smoke, and diesel engines.

This was the local version of an argument over the effects of fine particle pollution that has been running in public health schools and in Washington’s policy corridors for over a decade. And while green advocates have largely prevailed in the halls of the EPA, scientists and epidemiologists are still refining estimates of the health impacts of fine particle pollution. As it happens, there has been such a debate over Bowen itself.

In a little-noticed 2003 article in the academic journal Environmental Science and Technology, Professor Jonathan Levy and colleagues from the Harvard School of Public Health reported that emissions from seven coal-fired Southern Co. power plants in northern Georgia were sending 500 people each year to an early grave and killing 1,000 people nationwide. Asked about the numbers just for Bowen, Professor Levy said that unpublished estimates indicated Bowen’s emissions contributed to about 160 premature deaths each year within 500 kilometers of Atlanta and 330 fatalities across the country. If Levy’s projections are even half-right, Bowen is a major public health threat in Georgia. By way of comparison, 112 people were murdered in Atlanta last year.

John Jansen, the principal scientist for Southern Co., roundly dismisses the Harvard study. “I don’t have a lot of confidence in those numbers,” says Jansen. “Coming up with a number of 160 [deaths attributable to Plant Bowen]–nothing in the scientific community is near that certain…. There are tremendous biases and uncertainties with that number.” Levy acknowledges that “reasonable assumptions could double or halve” his estimates of deaths due to Bowen’s air pollution. But the projections themselves, he says, are grounded in well-verified epidemiological data and atmospheric modeling.

In Cartersville, however, the citizens don’t seem much interested in the debate over the health threat emanating from the plant. At the meeting that day in January, only a handful of local citizens were on hand or ventured to the microphone to ask questions. One of the few who did speak up was Debbie Gaines, a 53-year-old receptionist at an electrical supply company. When it appeared that the two-hour scheduled meeting would adjourn after just 40 minutes because there were no further questions, Gaines decided belatedly to take a turn at the microphone. “Do you guys live close to the plants that you manage?” she asked the Georgia Power representatives on the panel. “The clouds [from the plant emissions] come over [our valley] on my way in to work.” Her family had been good stewards of the land, farming for decades in a valley that lay about halfway between town and Bowen, seven miles to the west. But now, she said, “my neighbors, my dad, my mom–[there’s] cancer everywhere.”

Georgia Power officials listened respectfully to Gaines but assured her she had nothing to fear. “We have no reason to believe that the cloud you speak of is causing these things,” explained Kim Flowers, then the plant manager of Bowen.

Gaines’s tame query about Bowen’s air pollution was striking only because other Cartersville residents almost never express concern about the sulfur dioxide and various toxins emitted by the plant. “I hear complaints about traffic, drugs, and plant layoffs, not about Plant Bowen,” says Cartersville’s affable mayor, Mike Fields. “The average citizen of Cartersville doesn’t read EPA reports [on fine particle pollution]. Good, bad, or indifferent, it’s news to me that air pollution might be killing people–but I’m going to dig into it more.” Tim Crump, a veteran manager at Bowen, reports that “we don’t get complaints about pollution at the plant–none I’m aware of.”

Even traditional watchdog institutions like the local newspaper don’t forcefully challenge Georgia Power about the deaths and illnesses triggered by Bowen’s emissions. Charles Hurley, the editor and publisher of the Cartersville Daily Tribune News declined to be interviewed about Plant Bowen. “I have seen a number of reporters come through here and do a hatchet job on Bowen and I don’t think I want to be a part of that,” Hurley explained. “Bowen is a good professional partner in this community.”

Like any smart company these days whose business generates pollution, Georgia Power has consciously sought to burnish its image as an environmentally responsible corporate citizen in Cartersville, located about 45 miles north of Atlanta. Among other activities, Georgia Power sponsors luncheon seminars for chamber of commerce members with chipper, eco-friendly titles like “Walking in a ‘Wasteless’ Wonderland.” The seminars extolled the value of recycling Christmas trees, carpooling, driving hybrid cars, and buying environmentally-sensitive Christmas presents. In fact, the utility is regarded around town as a local environmental champion. The environmental council at the chamber of commerce was headed by the plant manager at Bowen last year, and Georgia Power spearheaded and paid for the town’s first “Envirofest” in the public square in 2004, at which the utility and various vendors got to showcase their green practices.

Yet the ecological value of such community initiatives, worthy as they are, pales beside the environmental and health damage wrought by the nearly 165,000 tons of sulfur dioxide and other toxic pollution released by Bowen. The 100-plus acres of pine trees planted by Bowen employees–preventing the release of about 2,000 tons of carbon into the atmosphere–is dwarfed by the 21 million tons of carbon dioxide the plant releases in a year. All told, Bowen emits about 250 times as much toxic pollution as any industrial facility in Bartow County, according to the EPA. Yet the issue of the plant’s pollution “has never come up at [chamber of commerce] council meetings,” says Molly Grover, president of the chamber.

One reason for the lack of local concern becomes evident when you take a trip to Plant Bowen itself. Built in the early 1970s, Bowen is a throwback to the days of big industry and mammoth facilities. The fenced plant grounds extend over 2,500 acres, an area three times the size of Central Park. The grounds include an old cemetery and a firing range used by law enforcement officers, and are so large that employees are allowed to bow hunt for deer on the premises; before 9/11, local high schools once held the boys’ and girls’ three-mile cross-country championship run at the plant. Yet despite its size, Bowen is not ordinarily visible from the outskirts of Cartersville seven miles away. For most area residents, the plant is literally out of sight and out of mind.

Georgia Power officials readily concede that Bowen generates a lot of pollution. But they argue that the plant’s emissions are large only because Bowen generates a huge amount of electricity, almost 21 million megawatt hours in 2004. (Bowen produces enough electricity in 15 seconds to power a typical home for a year. But it emits less pollution per megawatt than many smaller coal-fired plants). When all four of Bowen’s units are running, the four boilers burn 1,100 tons of coal an hour and generate more than 5 million pounds of steam to turn the plant’s turbines. Towering above the center of the plant are two thin columns or stacks, visible from the road, often with a thin puff of smoke, sometimes with a slight yellow tint, spiraling out above. These smokestacks, each 1,000 feet high, are among the taller structures in the world. They are nearly 450 feet taller than the Washington Monument, and 16 feet higher than the Eiffel Tower when it was first erected.

The two lofty smokestacks are where Bowen discharges pollutants from coal burning. Fifty years ago, coal-fired plants had much shorter stacks. That had several important consequences in local air pollution battles–people who lived nearby the plant could see the pollution it emitted, sometimes smell the sulfur, and observe the soot and dust that accumulated on nearby buildings, cars, windows, and gardens. By contrast, the soaring stacks of Bowen and more recently-built coal-fired plants make it much harder to see or smell pollution. They also make it far easier to dispel the impact of Bowen’s emissions over hundreds of miles.

Atmospheric modeling by the Georgia Environmental Protection Division suggests that under unusually stable wind and weather conditions, sulfur dioxide from Bowen reaches its maximum concentration at ground level about 46 miles away from the plant. Since it takes time for sulfur dioxide to form fine particle pollution in the atmosphere, sulfate-based particulate pollution would in most cases land even further from the plant and might not touch down for hundreds of miles.

Thus, for all intents and purposes, the health impact of Bowen’s air pollution is invisible to the residents of Cartersville–and to everyone else. When fine particle pollution from Bowen triggers a heart attack 100 miles away from the plant, the victim has no way of knowing that microscopic air pollutants set off his attack or that the toxic emissions originated at a distant power plant. Unlike, say, the case of cigarettes (which are deadly in part precisely because the smoker is inhaling fine particle pollution), power plant emissions don’t come in the form of a “cancer stick” that can be linked to subsequent illness and death. The tall smokestacks have meant that any illnesses resulting from Bowen’s pollution have been dispersed over a large enough area that its victims won’t necessarily point to Bowen; in many cases, they’ll be far enough away that they’ll never have heard of the plant. To them, Bowen’s smokestacks don’t look like a smoking gun.

Even the few local residents who are worried about the threat to their health from the plant have been unable to turn their concern into effective action. Allan Stone, for instance, can stand on his lawn in the winter months and see the stacks of Plant Bowen three to four miles in the distance. At night, the stacks are still indelible landmarks, lit up by flashing lights that alert airplanes to the presence of the two towers.

Stone, his wife Jamie, and their three young children moved to Euharlee, a tiny hamlet near Bowen, in November 2001. Within a few months, their two-year old son, Christopher, started struggling with a rollback cough. Before long, he was having asthma attacks and periodic bouts of pneumonia.

Though Christopher was mildly allergic to peanut butter and grass, he had never had respiratory problems before moving to Euharlee. But one night when Christopher was three, he awoke from his sleep and paddled into his parent’s bedroom in his pajamas at 11:00 p.m. In between wheezes, the little boy told his father, “Daddy, I can’t breathe.” Allan rushed his son to the emergency room in Cartersville. A few days later, the Stones got a nebulizer to use at home and started their son on an inhalable form of Flovent, a steroid, to ease his breathing.

But Christopher’s respiratory problems persisted, to the puzzlement of his parents. His cough lingered in all seasons and so didn’t seem related to pollen in the spring or mold in the fall. Sometimes his cough was worse in the summer, when ozone-based smog levels were high. At age 5, he contracted pneumonia twice, first during the fall and then later that winter, both seasons during which particulate counts tend to be higher in the Atlanta region. Last fall, he appeared in his parents’ bedroom at 2:00 a.m. wheezing and struggling for breath. This time, his nebulizer didn’t help. Allan and his wife bundled the boy in a blanket and rushed to the hospital again. “It’s extremely scary seeing your little boy when he can’t breathe,” says Allan. “And how is it that a five year-old can develop a case of walking pneumonia?”

At first, the Stones wondered whether there might be something in their new house that was triggering Christopher’s respiratory problems. But then, according to Allan Stone, Christopher’s pediatrician in Cartersville suggested that their son’s respiratory ailments might be related to the sulfur and particle pollution generated by Plant Bowen. (The pediatrician declined repeated requests for an interview through an office business administrator.) The Stones now believe their son’s doctor may have identified part of the problem. “I think his breathing problems are related to the power plant pollution,” says Jamie Stone, Christopher’s mother. “I’ve learned that when there is a yellowish haze out in the fields to tell him ‘it’s not a good time for you to go outside today.’”

The Stones considered moving to protect Christopher but hesitated because they liked the schools in Euharlee. Much to the Stones’s relief, Allan got a new job in July that will allow the family to relocate to the Dallas area this fall. “I’m not a card-carrying activist, or a member of Greenpeace or the Sierra Club,” says Allan, who worked for a manufacturing firm that produces video encoders and Internet security systems. “I am just a parent who has a little boy whose respiratory infections have gotten worse, and the doctor suggests it’s related to the plant.”

In any other situation, Christopher Stone could have been precisely the kind of victim who could galvanize action–a sympathetic sufferer for a mega-lawsuit, a poster child for a television campaign by the Sierra Club. And though both the trial bar and environmentalists have tried to spotlight kids like Christopher Stone to publicize the problem of fine particle pollution, the campaigns have never taken hold.

The reason why is that this environmental problem is different. Epidemiologists can point to spikes in deaths that correlate with pollution, but doctors can’t point to a single child and say, this one has pneumonia because of that plant. Apart from extreme pollution incidents like the Great London Smog of 1952, particulates “are not famous for their acute, identifiable effects,” says Dr. Howard Frumkin of Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health. The truth is that even skilled emergency room physicians would find it almost impossible to identify victims of particulate pollution from power plants–much less distinguish them from victims of ozone pollution or victims of particulate pollution from diesel engines. “If you have 100 people die citywide on an ordinary day,” says Frumkin, “101 people might die on a high particulate day. The impact of fine particles on mortality is something that is only visible from 30,000 feet.”

Yet for all its lack of a human face, the well-documented projections of deaths linked to particulate pollution really do mean that hundreds of thousands of people are dying early–leaving families, spouses, children, and loved ones behind. The difficulty in naming names and identifying victims “is the classic public health problem,” says Harvard’s Levy. “When you die, it doesn’t say on your death certificate that you died from smoking. That’s why you need epidemiology.”

On the ground, the absence of an air pollution “corpse” and “perp” has crippled, if not eviscerated, local citizen initiatives to slash power plant pollution. This vacuum has meant that two of the three traditional ways in which polluters have been called to account–through public outrage and private lawsuits–have gained no traction. That’s left all action on Bowen up to the third leg of the stool, government regulation, which reached its apex when the federal government sued Bowen and Georgia Power in 1999 for failing to modernize its pollution-control equipment. The evolution of that lawsuit–and its ultimate irrelevancy to cleaning up Bowen–provides a cautionary reminder that the old environmental playbook needs a rewrite.

Up until 1990, the EPA did comparatively little to control emissions from coal-fired power plants. The agency had generally relied on two longstanding command-and-control programs embedded in the 1970 Clean Air Act to control air pollution, the most important of which was the setting of national air quality standards. Every state had to prepare detailed, voluminous plans called SIPs (State Implementation Plan), showing how and when they would comply with the clean air standards. The second program for reducing emissions was New Source Review, a part of which required old industrial plants grandfathered under the Clean Air Act to install modern pollution-control equipment when they made modifications that increased emissions. The 1999 federal lawsuit against Bowen was brought for alleged violations of New Source Review.

New Source Review has a simple, appealing conceit–old, dirty power plants should eventually be forced to clean up and incorporate state-of-the-art pollution controls if they made modifications that would significantly increase emissions. In practice, however, NSR is anything but simple, because it contains a critical loophole–plants don’t have to upgrade pollution controls if the modifications are merely “routine maintenance.” An obvious sticking point developed during the years of implementing NSR–what exactly is “routine” maintenance and what isn’t? Once EPA began to specify equipment and repairs that did not qualify for the routine maintenance exemption–and laid out a formula for measuring net emission increases–NSR regulations mushroomed from 20 pages in 1977 to thousands of pages today. NSR is now extraordinarily complex. It has become a classic example of command-and-control regulation, an air pollution-analog to the tax code.

By 1990, the shortcomings of both NSR and the SIP process were evident. The eco-cause of the day was acid rain in the Northeast, caused in part by utility emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, which increased acid deposition in particle form on the ground and raised the PH of rain and snow when mixed in the atmosphere. This pollution, however, was interstate pollution so it was poorly controlled by SIPs, which traditionally regulated air quality efforts only within state boundaries. New Source Review was no answer to acid rain either, since the program at best could generate emission reductions slowly at a relatively small subset of old grandfathered plants. The radical solution to the interstate pollution problem, first incorporated in the 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act, was an emissions trading program.

Emissions trading, sometimes called “cap-and-trade” regulation, sets a national cap on emissions that declines over time. Under the 1990 amendments, each power plant receives a set number of pollution “allowances” for each ton of sulfur dioxide emissions, which they can bank, buy, or sell to other plants in a kind of market barter system. A plant that has not installed modern cleanup equipment, for example, may buy allowances from a cleaner plant with extra pollution credits to sell. Under the cap-and-trade system, the utility companies, not the EPA, decide how to cut emissions at each plant. The beauty of the approach is twofold: The cap ensures that emissions decline over time no matter how many new plants are built, and a tiny staff at the EPA can administer what would otherwise require a vast regulatory apparatus.

During the 1990s, acid deposition in the Northeast finally began to decline as a result of the 1990 law, and the EPA, along with a number of leading environmental organizations, began promoting emissions trading as the regulatory wave of the future. In 1997, the agency issued its first national air-quality standard for fine particle pollution, which it planned to enforce mostly with a cap-and-trade regime, and the following year, the EPA instituted an emissions trading program to control power plant nitrogen oxide emissions in Eastern states during the smog-plagued summer months. But the momentum for emissions trading came to a halt when the power industry immediately brought suit against the fine particle standard. In 1999, a D.C. appellate panel struck down the rule in a controversial decision.

Faced with the prospect of being unable to enforce its fine particle standards, the EPA turned to the only weapon left in its arsenal, launching a spate of aggressive New Source Review lawsuits. These suits soon became cause celebre for environmentalists. But the lawsuit tactic was always a limited, fallback option, as the disposition of the New Source Review case the EPA brought against Georgia Power and Bowen in 1999 suggests. In its complaint, the federal government specifically cited only one repair at one of Bowen’s four units as an NSR violation–a charge the company denied. After some legal wrangling, a federal judge stayed the case against the plant in June 2001, and it is now administratively closed.

The Bush administration was never a fan of New Source Review. That’s not surprising: Utility companies hate the program and such companies, Southern in particular, were major contributors to Bush’s campaigns and to the Republican Party. Ultimately, the administration tried to loosen or eliminate future requirements for upgrading old plants. But it also continued the Clinton-era lawsuits, including the one against Bowen, and it has won a handful of significant NSR settlements. Even so, the stalled court case against Bowen is not unusual. Preliminary rulings by federal judges have generally undermined the government’s ability to force change through NSR litigation. Adverse rulings such as a June 2005 federal district court decision in favor of Alabama Power, a Southern Co. affiliate, bode poorly for any reopening of the government’s case against Bowen and Georgia Power. The uneven record of NSR litigation has sent a clear message: Even expanded NSR enforcement won’t generate genuinely sweeping reductions in power plant pollution.

While the government’s NSR case against Bowen sputtered, a funny thing happened on the way to the regulatory forum. In 2001, the Supreme Court overturned the lower court’s ruling that had blocked EPA’s fine particle standard. Suddenly, the EPA was free to implement its standard and develop a cap-and-trade regime to enforce it. It would take four more years for that to happen, though, thanks to successful opposition from Democrats and environmentalists. The administration put its cap-and-trade rules for power plant pollution into a bill dubbed Clear Skies; Democrats managed to kill the legislation, arguing, among other things, that it didn’t cap carbon dioxide emissions or require steep enough pollution reductions. Finally, earlier this year, the administration abandoned the legislative route and the EPA issued, by executive fiat, a more limited regulatory version called the Clean Air Interstate Rule (CAIR).

CAIR utilizes cap-and-trade to force power companies in the East and Midwest to reduce sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions by about 70 percent over the next decade. And the new rule will effectively force Georgia Power and Southern Co. to install all the costly modern pollution control equipment at Bowen that EPA officials had hoped would come about a result of the now-defunct NSR lawsuit.

While Southern Co. had previously unsuccessfully opposed the 1997 fine particle standard and EPA’s 1998 regional summertime smog emissions-trading program, it has not contested CAIR in court. Even before CAIR, Southern Co. and Georgia Power had been compelled by EPA’s smog emissions-trading requirements and Atlanta’s smog control plan to install pollution control equipment to reduce summertime emissions of nitrogen oxides at Bowen–not to control fine particles, but to reduce ozone. As a result of the government’s arm-twisting, Georgia Power installed selective catalytic reduction (SCR) units on each of Bowen’s four generating units between 2000 and 2003.

Chuck Huling, director of environmental affairs at Georgia Power, says the company spent $450 million on the apartment-building-size SCR units at Bowen. Now, Huling says, Georgia Power is going to spend $400 to $500 million more at Bowen to comply with CAIR. It will install two huge sulfur dioxide scrubbers and two new 775-feet high stacks for all four generating units at Bowen between 2005 and 2010. Once the two scrubbers are on line, in 2009 and 2010, they will remove about 95 percent of the sulfur dioxide from Bowen’s emissions. By the end of the decade, Georgia Power will have spent close to a billion dollars to reduce Bowen’s air pollution. “Southern-fried” coal power, as it is sometimes dubbed, is about to get a lot cleaner at Bowen.

At this point, it is hard to see a discernable public health advantage to reopening the NSR case against Bowen. As Huling notes, the scrubbers and SCRs installed or planned for the facility are so state-of-the-art that “there is going to be nothing to do at Bowen” to further reduce sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions. Bowen, moreover, is hardly the only old plant that will finally clean up under CAIR. Kathleen McGinty, who headed President Clinton’s White House Council on Environmental Quality when the original NSR lawsuits were brought, observed recently that the fine particle standard and the CAIR rule “almost obviates NSR as a big issue…. The reductions that are needed [to meet the fine particle standard and CAIR emission caps] are so large,” she explained, “no plant will be spared.”

For old-line environmentalists, the success of the cap-and-trade system should actually come as monumentally good news. The particular elements that made the traditional green paradigm inoperable at Cartersville–the lack of identifiable “corpses” tied to “perps,” the dispersal of health effects over a huge geographic area, the difficulty of enforcing command-and-control-type regulations–are not aberrations in the eco-wars. More and more, they look like the future of environmental policy. Like fine particle pollution, the damage wrought by global warming, suburban sprawl, and agricultural runoff is cumulative, the effect of hundreds of thousands of discreet decisions by individual operators, spread over broad swaths of the population over many years, with no direct way to tie individual perpetrators to individual victims.

Faced with these new realities, the cap-and-trade model that belatedly compelled changes at Bowen seems to hold considerable promise. Its first great virtue is that, rather than rely on regulatory targeting of particular villains, it places the burden on industry to figure out how to limit pollution as a whole. Its second great virtue is that industry, so far at least, seems mostly willing to play along in most cases.

So, the ultimate lesson of the Cartersville case is likely this: Erin Brockovich simply can’t hack it anymore. The new generation of environmental challenges will have to be taken up by the government, with better cooperation from environmentally-enlightened companies. Fortunately, the tale of Bowen also shows a method, relying on the market, through which the federal government might do its job of confronting elusive environmental threats surprisingly well.

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David Whitman is a Washington, D.C. based writer. He previously was a reporter with U.S. News & World Report.