"Childhood asthma is an extraordinary problem in the District," said Mark Wenzler, Sierra Club spokesman. "The dirty air we breathe in metropolitan Washington can cause asthma attacks. Moreover, even healthy children and adults can suffer lung damage from breathing the dirty air in this region."
The call for reclassification to "severe" came in a letter sent on behalf of the Club by Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund. The Earthjustice letter says metro D.C. belongs in the higher pollution category because the area missed a November 15, 1999 for meeting federal health standards for ozone (smog). The letter threatens suit if EPA does not reclassify the area within 60 days. Ozone (smog) is a severe lung irritant that damages lung tissue, reduces lung function, and causes symptoms such as chest pain, nausea, and pulmonary congestion. The elderly, young children, and persons with asthma are especially vulnerable.
"Healthful air is a necessity, not a luxury," said David Baron, Earthjustice attorney. "Regional leaders and EPA need to acknowledge that metro DC's air is severely polluted, and take effective action now to protect area residents."
The summer of 1999 was one of the worst smog seasons in years, with seven "Code Red" days and high ozone levels recorded throughout the metro area. Although the summer of 2000 was less polluted because of unusually mild weather, projections show that unhealthy air will continue. Breathing difficulties during a typical smoggy summer in metro DC send more than 2,400 people to the emergency room, and cause more than 130,000 asthma attacks.
"Although metro D.C.'s unhealthful air has violated federal ozone standards for decades, the region still does not have an EPA-approved plan to stop the violations," said Wenzler. The Clean Air Act required adoption of such a plan six years ago. "Upgrading to clean-fueled buses is one of many steps the region can take to help clear the air, and should be included in the region's clean air plan," he said.
The Club advocates a wide variety of measures to fight dirty air, including:
- Require industries including electric power generation to pollute less.
- Require diesel trucks to use cleaner fuel.
- Replace diesel buses with natural gas or electric ones.
- Make bus and commuter rail service affordable, convenient, and dependable, in part by expanding mass transit, including the suburb-to-suburb connections for the "Purple Line."
- Reduce transit fares.
- Provide tax credits to promote transit and carpool use.
- Promote "smarter growth" -- reinvestment in existing urban and older suburban areas -- thereby reducing rate of traffic growth and reducing the need to drive.
The Club is advocating these measures as the regional Transportation Planning Board updates metropolitan Washington's 25-year transportation plan, which among other requirements must reduce air pollution. Total miles driven in the region is expected to increase by 70% over the next 20 years – nearly double the population growth rate. Suburban sprawl is a major cause of increased auto pollution as people must drive farther to get to work, schools, and shops. Sierra Club has raised concerns about the draft 25-year plan's ability to reduce air pollution, citing too many new highways, not enough bus and commuter rail expansion, and a failure to tie transportation to smarter growth measures.
The "severe" label would apply to the Washington "nonattainment area," which includes the District and surrounding counties: Calvert, Charles, Frederick, Montgomery, and Prince George's in Maryland; and Arlington, Fairfax, Loudon, Prince William and Stafford in Virginia.
Reclassification to "severe" would require the District, Maryland, and Virginia to adopt a new clean air plan to provide healthful air throughout the defined "nonattainment area." The plan must contain measures to reduce ozone-forming emissions by at least 3% each year until the region meets federal clean air standards. Such measures must include stronger controls on industrial emissions (such as from power plants), and measures to offset growth in car and truck emissions.
"Everyone has to work together to clear the air in metropolitan Washington," said Wenzler. "The region cannot simply blame pollution produced elsewhere for our smog problems, we're fouling our own nest." Metropolitan Washington violates clean air standards even on days the air is stagnant and transported pollution is not a major factor. While some state and local officials have tried to blame the problem on pollution blown in from other states, ironically, the state of Virginia has fought EPA's efforts to reduce pollution from power plants in the Midwest and east.