"Four million Texans are waiting for EPA to explain what it is doing to ensure they have breathable air," said Jim Marston, a Texas attorney with Environmental Defense, one of the plaintiffs bringing the motion in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. "We settled a lawsuit with EPA last year over this issue. EPA agreed to come forward with a plan, but the agency hasn't delivered."
The two other groups seeking the new court order are NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) and the Sierra Club.
Houston, Galveston and their surrounding counties suffer from one of the most severe smog problems in the country. The area set last year's national record for the highest reading of smog - technically called ground-level ozone - and exceeded the federal ozone standard more often than any other region.
These high levels pose a threat to area residents. EPA officials and other health experts say that inhaling even low levels of ozone causes a variety of respiratory problems, including chest pains, coughing, nausea and throat irritation. It also can aggravate bronchitis and asthma, and reduce children's lung capacity.
A consent decree reached with the same environmental groups last year required EPA to issue a plan by October 15 demonstrating how the Houston-Galveston area would meet the national ozone standard by the 2007 deadline set by the Clean Air Act. The agency had the choice of approving a plan submitted by Texas state authorities, or producing a plan of its own. In either case, the decree required that the plan spell out how Texas was going to make all of the pollution reductions needed to bring the Houston-Galveston area into line with the federal ozone standard.
EPA did approve a Texas plan on October 15, but that plan fails to spell out how all of the necessary pollution reductions will be achieved. "EPA signed off on a plan that its own calculations show to be 56 tons per day short of the necessary pollution reductions," said David McIntosh, an NRDC attorney. "That equals more than 40 million pounds per year of excess, illegal pollution in the Houston-Galveston air."
NRDC, Environmental Defense and Sierra Club maintain that the shortfall in emission reductions means that the Texas plan fails to relieve EPA of its obligation to devise a federal plan. Frank Blake, chair of the Sierra Club's Houston group, is dismayed by EPA's inaction: "Houston did not become one of the smoggiest cities in this country by accident," he said. "The latest plan reflects the chronic inability of state and federal agencies to take bold steps and give our families healthy air."
"At the very least," said Howard Fox of Earthjustice, an attorney representing the Sierra Club, "the consent decree requires EPA to propose enough smog control measures to fill the gap in the Texas plan."
The matter will be heard by U.S. District Judge Coleen Kollar-Kotelly.