by Nora O'Donnell
Environmental Law & Policy Center
Howard Learner may be soft-spoken, but he doesn’t skimp on the details. Ask him to name his proudest environmental achievement, and without pause, he’ll happily name two: cleaner energy and reducing mercury pollution in Illinois. His answers are big—lofty—which is exactly what you would expect from a public interest lawyer leading an ecological juggernaut.
Learner, 53, heads the Environmental Law & Policy Center, a privately funded team of lawyers and business experts who take polluters to court. From the 13th floor of the Jewelers Building, they also study ways to create “green jobs,” two familiar words from Barack Obama’s campaign trail. It’s no coincidence: Learner served as a senior environmental and energy adviser during Obama’s run.
In 2007, the ELPC made enormous progress toward weakening dirty coal plants. The organization helped Illinois pass a law with some muscle: a strict standard that requires utility companies to produce 25 percent of their electricity through a renewable source by 2025. Though progress has stalled in the current recession, the demand for wind turbine manufacturing has already created new jobs in the region. “No way am I saying we did it all,” Learner says, “but we’re out on the leading edge, working on getting Illinois to have some of the best renewable energy efficiency legislation in the country.”
Solving the problem of mercury pollution in Illinois’s lakes, rivers, and streams has hit a little closer to home for Learner, a Highland Park native. Most pollution from mercury—a neurotoxin that can cause fetal brain damage—comes from poor regulation of coal plants. As the father of three teenage boys, Learner knew something had to be done to protect children’s health. His team campaigned for the installation of modern pollution control technology in coal plants, which reduces mercury output by as much as 90 percent. And lawmakers listened. Installation begins this year and is to continue through 2012. “We were told we’d never get it done, but we did,” Learner says.
Learner and his team keep pushing agendas for new infrastructure, including the development of a high-speed rail network for the Midwest, but he acknowledges that the real challenge is follow-through. “The American political landscape is littered with policy ideas with good intentions,” he says. “Now let’s roll up our sleeves and get it done.”
Photograph: Erika Dufour