Brought by Earthjustice on behalf of the Sierra Club and New York Public Interest Research Group, the suit sought to require stronger air pollution permit regulations in 33 states, the District of Columbia, and the Virgin Islands. The settlement agreement provided for action to correct longstanding deficiencies in these state programs by December 1, 2001, including EPA takeover of state programs not corrected by then. Many states have upgraded their permit programs to meet the December 1 deadline, but Maryland and Connecticut did not.
"Americans across the country are reaping the benefits of this settlement with stronger protections for clean air," said David Baron, staff attorney for Earthjustice. "The fact that at least two programs didn't reform in time for the deadline is unfortunate, but thanks to the settlement, the federal agency must now step in to fix the problems. When you're talking about the air we and our children breathe, you need that kind of safety net."
Title V of the Clean Air Act requires state permit programs to limit industrial emissions of toxics, particulates, smog precursors, and other pollutants. The permits must spell out pollution limits, monitoring requirements, compliance schedules, and other provisions to implement clean air laws. EPA is charged with overseeing the individual states' programs.
By 1993, states were required by law to adopt permit programs to limit pollutants. However, EPA found programs in many states to be deficient. Some of the problems the agency found in various states were illegal waivers and exemptions, inadequate requirements for emission limits, and lax penalties. Deficiencies in Maryland included improper barriers to citizens' rights to challenge weak permits. Instead of disapproving these programs and taking action, EPA gave the states repeated time extensions to correct them – an effort that proved fruitless, as the programs didn't change. Environmentalists finally lost patience and sued last year.
"We're now seeing what happens when we have action instead of extensions," said Baron. "Public health protections can no longer be postponed."
The states and territories that faced the December, 2001 deadline for upgrading their programs were: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Virgin Islands, Virginia, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Washington.
According to EPA, Maryland and Connecticut were the only states whose programs were not fully approved by the December 1 deadline, and therefore supplanted by the federal program.
Although EPA indicates that it has fully approved the remaining state programs, Earthjustice and other environmental groups still have serious questions about the adequacy of some of these programs. In the coming weeks, Earthjustice will closely examine EPA's action on these programs to determine if further legal action is warranted to enforce the Clean Air Act.