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Facing Lawsuit, EPA Reclassifies California Central Valley Air Pollution as 'Severe'

Te US Environmental Protection Agency, under threat of legal action by medical, community, and environmental groups, has reclassified California's San Joaquin Valley as a 'severe' region for ozone air pollution.
October 23, 2001
San Francisco, CA — 
Under threat of litigation from medical, community and environmental groups, the US Environmental Protection Agency today assigned the San Joaquin Valley the status of "severe" ozone non-attainment. With its air quality status downgraded from "serious" to "severe" the San Joaquin Valley Air District must develop a pollution control plan by May 2002 that will reduce ozone pollution by 30 percent by 2005. A request to extend the deadline to 2007 was denied.

This past July, a coalition of medical, community, and environmental groups announced their intent to sue the EPA, among other things, for its failure to change the Valley's air quality to the dirtier "severe" designation. Today's action will address this issue, but the groups still plan to sue EPA for eight other instances of neglect in the Valley. The lawsuit will be brought by Earthjustice on behalf of the Fresno-based Medical Alliance for Healthy Air, the Sierra Club, Latino Issues Forum, and the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment.

In May 2001, the American Lung Association released a report demonstrating that three of the four most ozone-polluted cities in the nation are situated in the San Joaquin Valley. According to the report, breathing is more dangerous in Bakersfield, Fresno, and the Visalia-Tulare-Porterville area than any other place in the nation except Los Angeles. Ozone pollution exacerbates respiratory disease and causes coughing, throat irritation, and lung damage, as well as damaging agricultural crops and other vegetation.

"With this decision, the EPA takes an important step to end its decade-long neglect of the air quality problems in the San Joaquin Valley," said Bruce Nilles, attorney with Earthjustice who represents the coalition. "The EPA was required by law to take this action seventeen months ago. Since that time, Valley families have been exposed unnecessarily to damaging levels of air pollution. The EPA must now address the other eight violations that are similarly overdue."

Brent Newell of the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment declared today's action an overdue victory for public health because EPA has rejected the state's request to extend the ozone attainment deadline to 2007. The Center and the other groups had urged EPA to deny the extension because it is against federal law. "We are pleased EPA decided to comply with the law by ensuring that residents breathe cleaner air by 2005, not 2007," said Newell.

STANDARDS IGNORED, DEADLINES MISSED

The national one-hour ozone standard is set at 120 parts per billion to protect public health. Regions that violate this standard more than three times over a three-year period are designated to varying degrees as "non-attainment," depending on the severity of the violations. EPA designated the San Joaquin Valley as a "serious" non-attainment area for ozone in 1990 and gave the region ten years to correct its ozone pollution problems. The ozone problem in the Valley worsened through the early 1990s, and the area missed its attainment deadline by a significant margin. Federal law then required EPA to downgrade the air quality designation by May 15, 2000, and to impose new pollution control measures. Two months later, community groups declared their intention to sue the EPA in order to protect public health.

Under the "severe" designation, new controls must be enacted. These new controls include:

· The definition of a "major" pollution source will be broadened to include industrial facilities that emit between 25 and 50 tons of ozone-forming chemicals per day.

· New and modified major pollution sources will have to offset any new pollution by 1.3 tons for every new ton of pollution before they can operate in the Valley. Under the "serious" designation, the offset was 1.2:1.

· The Air District must identify and implement pollution control measures to reduce emissions of ozone-forming chemicals by approximately 30 percent by 2005.

"While most other areas in the country have shown at least modest improvement in controlling ozone pollution, San Joaquin Valley has made no noticeable progress in the past twenty years," said Dr. David Pepper of the Medical Alliance for Healthy Air. "Filtering of dirty air should happen at the source, not in Valley residents' lungs. Emergency rooms fill throughout the Valley on high ozone days: children and the elderly suffer disproportionately."

"Other regions of the United States have balanced the need for clean air with economic development," said Kevin Hall, a Fresno native, and member of the local Sierra Club chapter. "Good solutions exist that we could implement if we had the political courage. Unfortunately, the scales in the Valley have repeatedly tipped in favor of unregulated pollution and against public health."

"With the new 'severe' label, we are just one level below the dirtiest designation in the country. This designation will ensure the San Joaquin Valley does not become the next Los Angeles," said Leo Avila of the Latino Issues Forum. "Today's action will help all Valley residents who suffer from the health consequences of air pollution, and for Latinos with less access to health care, cleaner air can save lives."

On October 9, 2001, plaintiffs Medical Alliance for Healthy Air, Sierra Club, Latino Issues Forum and Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment settled a related lawsuit against the San Joaquin Valley Unified Air Pollution Control District. As a part of the settlement the Air District agreed to adopt six new measures over the next year to reduce the daily emissions of ozone-forming chemicals by more than six tons per day.

The coalition still plans to sue the EPA over its failures to:

· Take any action on the Valley's 1997 Particulate Matter Attainment Plan. By not formally approving or disapproving this inadequate plan for this "serious" non-attainment area, the Valley lacks any enforceable strategies to eliminate particulates, and emissions continue to increase.

· Take any action on the Valley's contingency measures contained within the 1994 Ozone Attainment Plan. Since missing the deadline for attaining national ozone standards in 1999, the Valley has had no enforceable contingency plan to reduce ozone precursor emissions.

· Take action to disapprove four ozone precursor control rules -- targeted at internal combustion engines, stationary gas turbines, boilers, steam generators, and process heaters -- that contain an exemption for pollution west of Interstate 5 in Kern, Kings, and Fresno counties, the location of most oil production.

· Take action on two rules submitted in 1993: one establishing a general limit on particulate matter emissions, and the other regulating particulate emissions from wood burning stoves.


Contact:
Bruce Nilles, Earthjustice, (415) 627-6700
Brent Newell, CRPE, Delano (661) 720-9140
David Pepper, MD, Medical Alliance for Healthy Air, Fresno, (559) 459-5705
Kevin Hall, Sierra Club, (559) 227-6421
Enrique Gallardo, LIF, (415) 547-7550