Reclassification would trigger more stringent air pollution control requirements in Beaumont-Port Arthur, Texas; Reno, Nevada; Cleveland, Ohio; Imperial County, CA; Searles Valley, CA; and Wallula, Washington.
"The settlement means that these six communities are going to be reviewed, and if they haven't met clean air deadlines, stricter controls will be enforced," said David Baron, attorney for Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund. "We have to be sure that the air in these areas that the children and their parents breathe is clean, and if it's not, more has to be done."
The settlement is a result of a suit brought by Earthjustice under the Clean Air Act on behalf of the Sierra Club. The suit charges that EPA missed legal deadlines for making reclassification decisions in these and other communities.
The settlement sets a December 1 deadline for EPA's reclassification decision for Cleveland; December 22 for Reno and Wallula; April 30, 2001 for Beaumont; and June 1, 2001 for Imperial County and Searles Valley.
Federal law requires EPA to reclassify communities to more severe air pollution categories within six months after the community misses a clean air deadline. This step-up in classification triggers stronger clean air requirements in each area, including tighter restrictions on pollution from major factories, refineries and power plants.
"The law required EPA to make these determinations a long time ago," said Bob Palzer, chair of Sierra Club's air quality committee. "It's an important step to ensure that public health is protected."
EPA designated each affected community as a nonattainment area for particulate matter, except for Beaumont, which is nonattainment for ozone. Particulate matter consists of airborne soot, soil, metals and other particles and is linked to premature death, reduced lung function and aggravation of lung disease. Ozone is a severe lung irritant that damages lung tissue, reduces lung function, and causes such symptoms as chest pain, nausea and pulmonary congestion. The Clean Air Act generally required attainment of particulate standards by 1994 and of ozone standards by 1996.
The settlement does not resolve the status of a number of other cities named in the lawsuit. Those cities remain the subject of further litigation.