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Earthjustice Sues EPA for Waiving Clean Air Requirements For Imperial Valley

Agency blames problem on Mexico
December 18, 2001
Washington, DC —

Earthjustice today filed suit against the Environmental Protection Agency claiming that the agency's October waiver of stronger clean air protections in parts of California violates the Clean Air Act. The law firm for the environment charges that the EPA waiver allows residents of El Centro, Calexico, Brawley, and other parts of Imperial County to be exposed to unhealthful amounts of airborne particulates, a form of air pollution linked to early deaths and other serious health effects.

"Imperial County has the highest rate of childhood asthma in the state," said Earthjustice attorney David Baron, who brought the suit on behalf of the Sierra Club over the valley's air quality. "It's a travesty that EPA would turn its back on families and children in an area with such profoundly dirty air."

EPA justified its action by claiming that Imperial Valley would meet standards if it weren't for air pollution coming from Mexico. But Earthjustice contends that a detailed scientific study conducted in 1997 for EPA found that Imperial Valley would violate standards even without emissions from Mexico. The study found that violations occurred miles north of the border even on days with stagnant air. Earthjustice contends that EPA cannot grant a waiver without proof that emissions from across the border are responsible for the violations in the United States.

Scientific studies link airborne particulates to tens of thousands of premature deaths nationally, as well as to reduced lung function and aggravation of lung disease. Airborne particulates consist of soot, soil, dust, metals, and other particles emitted by industrial facilities, agriculture operations, mines, motor vehicles, and other sources.

Imperial Valley violated health standards for airborne particulates on 206 days last year, according to EPA estimates. On one day last year, the area recorded particulate levels at 1000 percent more than the health standard – more than double the level at which EPA says people can be significantly harmed. The death rate from respiratory diseases in Imperial County is more than double that in California, according to the state's Department of Health Services.

The Clean Air Act generally required attainment of particulate standards by 1994, and reclassification – or bump up – of areas missing that deadline to a more serious air pollution category. Reclassified areas must adopt stronger pollution controls for industry, agriculture, and other sources. Imperial Valley missed the 1994 deadline. After EPA failed for six years to bump up the area, Earthjustice sued on behalf of the Sierra Club to require action. EPA responded by waiving the bump up requirement, triggering today's new lawsuit by Earthjustice

Imperial County does not have an EPA-approved plan to address particulate pollution on the US side of the border, even though one was due ten years ago. "Pointing fingers at Mexico doesn't reduce the substantial amounts of particulate pollution generated within Imperial County," said Dr. Robert Palzer, chair of Sierra Club's air quality committee. "Much more needs to be done to control pollution on the US side of the border."

Earthjustice filed the suit in the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

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Earthjustice is the premier nonprofit environmental law organization. We wield the power of law and the strength of partnership to protect people’s health, to preserve magnificent places and wildlife, to advance clean energy, and to combat climate change. We are here because the earth needs a good lawyer.