"EPA needs to address our region's dirty air now," said Earthjustice attorney David Baron. "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. Clean air is a basic necessity for everyone. That's why we're pushing for full compliance with the Clean Air Act."
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."
"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 Dr. Karpick. "Living in the nation's capital should not come with an increased risk of lung damage and respiratory illness, but for decades it has."
Although metro DC's unhealthful air has violated federal ozone standards for decades, the region still does not have an EPA-approved plan to stop the violations. The Clean Air Act required adoption of such a plan by 1994.
In response to a previous Earthjustice suit on behalf of Sierra Club, a federal court rejected EPA's attempt to extend the 1999 clean air deadline to 2005 without reclassifying the area to "severe." Since the court ruled in July, EPA has not required stronger clean air measures in the region, and has indicated that it may allow delay of new clean air plans until March 2004. Today's lawsuit is a response to EPA's continued failure to act. "It's time for EPA to stop dragging its feet and start complying with the law," said Sierra Club spokesperson Melanie Mayock.
Mayock pointed out that air quality staff at the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments have indicated that a new clean air plan could be completed by spring of 2003, yet EPA is proposing to give the region an extra year beyond that to write the plan.
"We need an effective, enforceable plan to get the necessary pollution reductions for healthy air, and we need it now," said Mayock. "The residents of Metropolitan Washington have waited too long to breathe healthy air because of delays from EPA," she said.
Sierra Club advocates a comprehensive clean air plan that gives people transportation choices, limits congestion and improves quality of life.
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.