A federal judge has ordered the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to decide by next month whether to reclassify the Washington region to "severe" for ozone pollution, a step that would trigger stronger pollution controls for industries and motor vehicles. The court also ordered EPA to decide by next April whether to formally disapprove the region's previous clean air plans, a move that would trigger legal requirements to redirect transportation spending from new roads to better mass transit. The orders came last night in a suit by Earthjustice on behalf of the Sierra Club.
"This is a great victory for clean air in the Washington area," said Earthjustice attorney David Baron. "The Court decision means that EPA must get on with the job of protecting the public health without delay. Just by being outside, Washington area residents are exposed to ozone at levels that can cause serious health problems, especially for children, senior citizens, and asthmatics."
Last summer the Washington region suffered from the worst ozone pollution in more than a decade. There were nine "code red" days, and another 19 "code orange" days when children were warned to limit outdoor play. The situation was even worse when measured against EPA's new, more protective 8-hour ozone standard, which was exceeded on 36 days in 2002 – including two "code purple" days when the air was deemed "very unhealthy." Planners at the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments recently discovered that air pollution from vehicles in 2005 would be 30% higher than previously assumed, because of additional SUVs on the roads.
"Healthy air is a necessity, not a luxury," said Dr. Ronald Karpick, a Falls Church pulmonary physician. "I've treated hundreds of local residents suffering from asthma and other respiratory diseases who are unable to go outside in the summertime due to high ozone levels. This is unacceptable."
Ozone is a severe lung irritant that damages lung tissue and reduces lung function, ultimately inducing symptoms such as chest pain, nausea, and pulmonary congestion. Ozone at levels routinely experienced in the capital region is particularly detrimental to at-risk individuals like the elderly, children, and persons with respiratory problems. During a typical smoggy summer in metro DC, breathing difficulties send more than 2,400 people to the emergency room and cause 130,000 asthma attacks.
"Taking a walk across the Mall should not pose a health risk," said Baron. "Living in the nation's capital should not come with an increased risk of lung damage and respiratory illness, but for decades it has."
DC's non-attainment areas include the District of Columbia, Calvert, Charles, Frederick, Montgomery, and Prince George's counties in Maryland; and Alexandria, Arlington, Fairfax, Falls Church, Loudoun, Manassas, Manassas Park, Prince William, and Stafford counties in Virginia.
To bring these areas back into compliance with the law, Sierra Club urges EPA to adopt a comprehensive clean air plan that makes public transit affordable, convenient, and dependable, and that promotes smart growth rather than suburban sprawl.
"The residents of Metropolitan Washington have waited too long to breathe healthy air," said Sierra Club spokesperson Melanie Mayock. "It's time for our state and local officials to put in place stronger clean air measures to protect public health," she said.
The Court orders were issued by U.S. District Judge James Robertson in Washington, D.C.
In a previous Earthjustice lawsuit, a federal appeals court last July ruled that state and local plans to address the ozone problem were inadequate. When EPA failed to require corrective action, Earthjustice filed the suit that led to last night's ruling.
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