Environmental, medical, and community groups had urged EPA to not lift the highway sanctions and for the agency to reject the Bay Area's new ozone plan. EPA lifted the sanctions even though it does not dispute that the 2001 Plan fails in two fundamental aspects:
1) It is 26 tons/day short of the reductions in pollution needed to protect Bay Area residents; and
2) The 2001 Plan utterly fails to protect downwind residents in the Central Valley, especially residents of Sacramento and the Northern San Joaquin Valley. Much of the Bay Area's pollution blows over Altamont Pass and right into the Central Valley. More than 22 percent of the Valley's air pollution in some areas is actually generated in the Bay Area.
This added pollution is the last thing the Central Valley needs -- it is the most ozone-polluted air basin in the entire United States. Last year the San Joaquin Valley portion of the Central Valley registered 101 days where the air quality violated the national 8-hour ozone standard. Los Angeles registered 100. At the same time, the Bay Area's air quality violated federal health standards more than seven days last year.
For decades, the Bay Area has ignored the pollution it sent over to Sacramento and Valley residents. Neither the state nor EPA has intervened to protect the health of the downwind residents. In the meantime, numerous new highway projects in the Bay Area have continued unabated. EPA's approval of the emissions budgets allows these pollution-causing activities to proceed full bore.
More than ten percent of San Joaquin Valley residents suffer from asthma; children are especially hard hit. Ozone pollution has been identified as cause of asthma. In addition, ozone causes a wide-variety of other respiratory ailments, including emphysema, bronchitis and other breathing problems.
"EPA had a clear choice -- protect eastern Bay Area communities and downwind children, or placate the highway builders and Bay Area politicians," said Kevin Hall, Sierra Club member in Fresno. "EPA has given highway builders a box of chocolates today."
"EPA's action is a prescription for dirty air in the Central Valley," said Dr. Pepper of the Fresno-based Medical Alliance for Healthy Air. "EPA's action means that more children will contract asthma. Allowing more highways, without improving transit options, means more air pollution. EPA should have left their San Francisco offices and have visited my Fresno asthma clinic to witness wheezing children before it caved to Bay Area politicians."
"Federal law prohibits one air basin from harming people living downwind," said Bruce Nilles, attorney for Earthjustice. "Today EPA knowingly made a crass political decision that will harm Valley children. It should have rejected the plan and required a new one that will protect the public's health in the Bay Area and downwind. EPA didn't, and so we are forced, again, to review all of our legal options."
As the Fresno Bee editorialized earlier this week: "This really should be an easy decision for the EPA. Bay Area residents are part of the problem when it comes to the Valley's horrible air quality. They ought to be part of the solution as well."
Map of effects of Bay Area pollution on Sacramento and San Joaquin Valley