Skip to main content

Groups Announce Upcoming Suit Over DC Region's Dirty Air

EPA delay violates Clean Air Act
September 5, 2002
Washington, DC —

Citing the worst air pollution summer in nearly a decade, Earthjustice and Sierra Club today called on EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman to reclassify metropolitan Washington from "serious" to "severe" for ozone (smog) levels. Reclassification would trigger requirements for additional actions to reduce air pollution in the metro area, including reducing emissions from cars, trucks, buses, and industrial sources. The groups also called on Whitman to disapprove the region's inadequate clean air plans, a move that would trigger legal requirements to redirect transportation spending from new roads to better mass transit.

"Already this summer we've had 12 code red days when the air was unhealthful, especially for small children and asthmatics," said Sierra Club spokesperson Melanie Mayock. "Parents should not have to worry about letting their children play outside in the nation's capital because of filthy air."

"Healthful air is a necessity, not a luxury," said Earthjustice attorney David Baron. "Regional leaders and EPA need to acknowledge that metro DC's air is severely polluted, and take effective action now to protect area residents. Even healthy children and adults can suffer lung damage from breathing the dirty air in this region."

The call for reclassification to "severe" came in a letter sent on behalf of the Sierra Club by Earthjustice. The Earthjustice letter says metro DC belongs in the higher pollution category because the area missed a 1999 deadline for meeting federal health standards for ozone. The letter threatens suit if EPA does not reclassify the area within 60 days. The letter sent today also threatens suit if EPA does not disapprove the region's deficient air pollution plans within that time frame.

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 taken action to require stronger clean air measures in the region, and has indicated that it may delay requirements for such measures until 2004. Today's threat to file a new suit is a response to EPA's continued delay. "It's time for EPA to stop dragging its feet and start complying with the law," said Baron.

Ozone 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, young children, and persons with asthma are especially vulnerable.

The ozone problem in Washington is even worse when measured against a new, more protective ozone standard adopted in 1997, but not yet implemented by EPA. So far this summer, the Washington area has violated that standard on 34 days. Breathing difficulties during a typical smoggy summer in metro DC send more than 2,400 people to the emergency room, and cause more than 130,000 asthma attacks.

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 in 1994. Sierra Club advocates a comprehensive clean air plan that makes public transit affordable, convenient, and dependable, and that promotes smart growth rather than suburban sprawl.

Sierra Club contends that proposals for new highways, such as the western bypass, ICC, and techway would lead to more driving and more sprawl, making it impossible to meet air quality standards. "If we focus on building more highways for developers, we will choke on more traffic and air pollution," said Mayock.

A recent analysis by transportation planners confirms that new roads worsen air pollution. When Virginia cut 100 lane-miles of new roads from its transportation plan this summer, the Transportation Planning Board found this would result in higher transit ridership, fewer miles driven, and a significant reduction in air pollution.

"It's simple: more roads means more pollution and more health problems." said Mayock. "It's time for local officials to give people an alternative to sitting in traffic by expanding our transit system, including building rail on the new Woodrow Wilson Bridge, and clustering more jobs, housing and shops near transit."

Reclassification to "severe" would require the metro region to adopt a new clean air plan to provide healthful air throughout the defined "nonattainment area," which includes 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. The plan must contain measures to reduce ozone-forming emissions by at least 3 percent each year until the region meets federal clean air standards. It must also include stronger controls on industrial emissions (such as those from power plants), and measures to curb car and truck emissions.

Photographs (taken August 2002 by David Baron):

Horizontal Shot with Washington Monument

Vertical Shot with Capitol Dome

Vertical Shot with Washington Monument

Contacts

Suzanne Carrier (Earthjustice)

202.667.4500, x. 213

Melanie Mayock (Sierra Club)

703.312.0533 x110

About Earthjustice

Earthjustice is the premier nonprofit environmental law organization. We wield the power of law and the strength of partnership to protect people’s health, to preserve magnificent places and wildlife, to advance clean energy, and to combat climate change. We are here because the earth needs a good lawyer.