"What the EPA did in granting this extension was inexcusable and illegal in our view," said David Baron, attorney for Earthjustice. "Delay in cleaning up dirty air threatens the health of everyone, especially our children. That is simply unacceptable for the capital of our country, or for anyplace else in the United States."
If successful, today's suit could require the reclassification from 'serious' to 'severe' for smog pollution in the metro Washington area. Such a change would require stronger pollution controls on factories and power plants. The suit could also trigger legal requirements to redirect transportation spending from new roads to better mass transit.
Ozone, the main component of 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, the young and persons with asthma are especially vulnerable. Metro D.C. missed a November 15, 1999 deadline for attaining the ozone health standard. The "nonattainment" area includes the District of Columbia; Calvert, Charles, Frederick, Montgomery, and Prince Georges counties in Maryland; and Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun, Prince William and Stafford counties in Virginia.
Washington's 1999 smog season was one of the worst in recent years, with seven code-red days and high ozone levels recorded throughout the metro area. Although summer 2000 was less polluted because of unusually mild weather, projections show that unhealthy air will remain in the area.
According to some estimates, breathing difficulties during a typical smoggy summer in metro D.C. send more than 2,400 people to the emergency room, and cause more than 130,000 asthma attacks.
"We need much stronger measures to attack air pollution now," said Glen Besa of the Sierra Club. "The dirty air we breathe in Washington can cause asthma attacks. Moreover, even healthy children and adults can suffer lung damage from breathing the dirty air in this region."
The EPA granted the deadline extension based on claims by D.C. area governments that more time is needed to address air pollution transported here from other states. Virginia is challenging the EPA efforts to reduce such transported pollution. Sierra Club also argues that the Washington area can violate clean air standards even when transported pollution is not a major factor.
"D.C. area governments cannot point fingers at other states until they have done all they can to cut pollution locally," said Besa. "Everyone has to work together to clear the air in metropolitan Washington. The region cannot simply blame pollution produced elsewhere for our smog problems. We're fouling our own nest."
In addition to challenging the deadline extension, Sierra Club charges that the EPA illegally approved deficient clean air plans submitted by Virginia, Maryland, and the District. The Club says the plans lack legally required control measures, funding commitments, enforcement programs and contingency measures, and that they fail to assure annual cuts in regional pollution as required by law.
"The EPA can't extend the clean air deadline while letting the states avoid stronger anti-pollution efforts," said Baron.
The Sierra Club advocates more stringent pollution controls to meet clean air standards at the earliest possible date. The group supports a wide variety of measures to fight dirty air, including; tougher pollution limits on industry, crackdowns on dirty diesel trucks, replacement of diesel buses with natural gas or electric ones, major mass transit expansion, reduced transit fares and tax credits to promote transit and carpool use.
The Club also urges broad programs to limit urban sprawl – a major cause of increased auto pollution as people drive farther to get to work, schools and shops. Vehicle traffic is expected to increase by 70 percent during the next 20 years – nearly double the population growth rate. Sierra Club is calling for greater efforts to reduce the rate of traffic growth through better land use planning and stronger transit programs such as a Metro "Purple" line. According to recent projections, the Washington Metropolitan Transportation Authority lacks the capacity to accommodate even current growth in transit use beyond 2005.