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A Mom’s Battle Against Ozone

Steve, Afton and May Surwillo talk to Rocio Rodarte, Legislative Aide for Colorado Senator Michael F. Bennet, during an Earthjustice clean air fly-in meeting in the Russell Senate Office Building in Washington D.C.

On June 13, Steve, Afton and May Surwillo talk to Rocio Rodarte, Legislative Aide for Colorado Senator Michael F. Bennet, in the Russell Senate Office Building in Washington D.C.

Matt Roth for Earthjustice

Editor’s Note: On July 12, health, environmental and community groups—represented by Earthjustice—sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to stop the agency’s delay in implementation of the 2015 smog standard. The standard is a key health protection for millions of people in the United States. The groups asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit to quickly throw out or block EPA’s illegal delay. "The delay flouts the rule of law," said Earthjustice attorney Seth Johnson. "It’s illegal and wrong. It forces the most vulnerable people, like children, people with asthma and the elderly, to continue to suffer from dangerous ozone pollution. The EPA is wrong to put its polluter friends’ profits before people’s health."

Afton Surwillo journeyed from Colorado to Capitol Hill last week to join with moms, doctors and faith leaders to voice concerns over congressional attacks on clean air protections. She had several reasons for making the trip and enduring D.C.’s record temperatures and “orange alert” air quality. A big reason was her son Luc.   

She adopted Luc 17 years ago from Vietnam, a country with lax pollution controls. When she and her husband Steve went to Southeast Asia to pick up their son, they were handed a folder of his records, written mostly in Vietnamese and French, and sent to the airport.

“We were getting on the plane to fly back to the U.S. when Luc started having breathing problems. He was clearly having an asthma attack on the plane, but [at the time] we had no idea,” says Surwillo. “Not knowing why he was having trouble breathing was so frightening.”   

Steve and Afton Surwillo with their children Luc and May.
Steve and Afton Surwillo, with their children Luc and May.
Photo Courtesy of the Surwillo family

Luc received good medical care at his new home in Chicago, where Surwillo lived at the time. But he still kept ending up in the emergency room. On many days Luc had to wear a special mask to help him breathe.

As Surwillo watched her son struggle to breathe, she knew she had to fight to protect their air.

“I started getting obsessed with figuring out what we could do to reduce his risk of attacks. We started logging when his attacks were the worst,” says Surwillo. “It just became so clear that the attacks were directly correlated with bad air days.”

As Surwillo watched her son struggle to breathe, she knew she had to fight to protect their air.

With her husband Steve and their young daughter, Surwillo joined Earthjustice, Mom’s Clean Air Force, Hoosier Environmental Council and Physicians for Social Responsibility on Capitol Hill to speak with members of Congress about harmful bills that undermine the Clean Air Act, such as H.R. 806, the “Smoggy Skies Act.” This legislation would permanently weaken the Clean Air Act. Among other things, it would delay updates to health standards so they would be scientifically behind the times, inject politics into what is supposed to be a science-based process for setting health standards, delay even further the implementation of more protective smog limits, and allow polluters to apply for permits that exceed the current ozone standard.

Take Action! Congress is now advancing the “Smoggy Skies Act”, a bill that would permanently weaken the Clean Air Act and delay important anti-smog protections that took nearly a decade to achieve

Air pollution hangs over the skyline in Denver, Colorado, where the Surwillo family currently lives.
Air pollution hangs over the skyline in Denver, Colorado, where the Surwillo family currently lives.
U.S. Dept. of Energy

In her first meeting in D.C., at Colorado Senator Michael Bennet’s office, Surwillo said she had three main reasons for being there.

Her first reason was her grandfather, a conservative state senator who taught her that government’s role was to protect the vulnerable.

Her second reason was her kids, Luc in particular.

And third was her own childhood tragedy. At the age of nine, Surwillo’s world completely changed when she suffered a severe spinal cord injury due to inadequate protections on the playground. As a result, her family spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on medical bills.

"If we are only looking at short-term costs, we are really missing the point and not protecting our kids.”

“My point was, if we are only looking at short-term costs, we are really missing the point and not protecting our kids,” she says.

Surwillo’s visit comes just days after the EPA announced it was delaying implementation of a stronger smog standard, adopted by the agency in 2015 as a result of Earthjustice litigation. The EPA previously estimated that, by 2025, the 2015 standard will save hundreds of lives, prevent 230,000 asthma attacks in children and prevent 160,000 missed school days for kids each year.

A sign designates the clean air fly-In training location in Washington D.C.
A sign designates the clean air fly-in training location in Washington D.C.
Matt Roth for Earthjustice

Earthjustice has been fighting in court for decades to ensure strong ozone protections, and we will continue to defend the ozone rule against industry attacks and unnecessary delays.

“Hand in hand with our partners, we’re going to keep shining a bright light on efforts to block public health protections and gut the Clean Air Act,” says Terry McGuire, senior legislative representative with Earthjustice. “The American public supports the Clean Air Act, and no one, except maybe fossil fuel lobbyists, voted for dirtier air and more pollution last November. ”

Afton Surwillo stands with her daughter in the Longworth House Office Building in Washington D.C.
Afton Surwillo stands with her daughter in the Longworth House Office Building in Washington D.C.
Matt Roth for Earthjustice

After two days making the case for clean air, Surwillo and her family headed back home to the start of Colorado’s smog season. Despite the state’s image of pristine natural beauty, Colorado still has two of the top 15 cities with the worst ozone pollution in the country. The Surwillos are determined to continue writing letters, making phone calls and ensuring their advocacy for clean air is heard.

“Coming to D.C. and meeting my representative’s staff felt very empowering,” says Surwillo. “We are not going to keep quiet.” 

Take Action! Congress is now advancing the “Smoggy Skies Act”, a bill that would permanently weaken the Clean Air Act and delay important anti-smog protections that took nearly a decade to achieve

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