In a major victory for clean air and public health, a coalition of health and environmental groups today announced a court settlement that will improve cleanup of smog (ozone) in communities across the country. The settlement, reached with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in a federal court lawsuit, will kick off a long-delayed process for lowering ozone levels to meet new national air quality standards issued in 1997.
The groups bringing the legal action on behalf of millions of Americans include the American Lung Association, Environmental Defense, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Sierra Club. Earthjustice has represented these organizations in the lawsuit. Five state and regional groups, including the Alabama Environmental Council, Clean Air Council, Michigan Environmental Council, Ohio Environmental Council, and the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, have also participated in the suit, represented by the Clean Air Task Force.
Court papers filed today call on EPA to formally determine, by April 2004, which areas fail to meet national standards for ozone. Air quality in numerous communities in 38 states is expected to be found out of compliance. Once EPA makes those determinations, state and local programs will be called on to reduce smog emissions to meet the standards.
"This settlement means that work can begin to attack ozone and greatly reduce the risk to the most vulnerable Americans, including children, seniors, and people with asthma and other chronic lung diseases, from exposure to ozone smog," said John L. Kirkwood, President and CEO of the American Lung Association. "The long wait since 1997 has meant that our air has stayed dirty far too long and many more people have suffered."
EPA revised the national ozone standard five years ago to 0.08 parts per million averaged over eight hours, strengthening the previous standard (0.12 parts per million averaged over one hour). Although Congress directed EPA to determine, no later than July 2000, which areas fail to attain the new ozone standard, the agency has yet to do so.
"Existing designations inaccurately portray areas with unhealthful levels of ozone as compliant with the Clean Air Act. The public has a right to designations based on reality – not just wishful thinking," said Howard Fox of Earthjustice, lead counsel for the environmental and public health groups. "These standards were upheld by the Supreme Court and it's time the American people began to breathe the benefits."
"We're keeping a close eye on this process to make sure communities really are cleaning up their air," said Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope. "We want to make sure that this schedule doesn't slip, leaving communities at risk from pollution that triggers asthma attacks."
"We plan to carefully track the process of meeting the ozone and other health standards for air pollution," added John Walke, of the Natural Resources Defense Council. "The benefits of cleaner air to the American people have been delayed for over five years, and we must make sure there are no further delays."
"While it's unfortunate we had to bring a lawsuit to force EPA to carry out its most basic responsibilities in protecting public health from air pollution, the harmful smog levels of the past Summer are a compelling reminder of the unacceptable public health impacts of delayed progress," said Environmental Defense senior attorney Vickie Patton. "We need all sides of the issue across the country to roll up their sleeves and work together to address this serious public health problem," said Patton.
The 1997 ozone standards are based on years of scientific review and mounting evidence of the public health risk. Ozone is a powerful irritant, which leaves the lungs inflamed, as though they were sunburned. Ozone causes asthma attacks, coughing, wheezing and other respiratory distress, and is linked to increased use of medications, hospitalizations, and emergency room visits. Recent studies showed that ozone levels low enough to comply with the previous ozone standard – levels experienced each year by millions of people around the nation – are still high enough to cause significant health impacts. Implementation of the new, more protective standards will prevent thousands of asthma attacks, hospitalizations, and asthma-related emergency room visits each year.
"Cleaning up the air will take time, even with this settlement," said Kurt Waltzer of The Ohio Environmental Council. "Today, we can finally start down that road."
Ozone levels can be reduced cost-effectively, using a combination of federal, state, and local efforts. For example, the adoption of new federal emissions standards and cleaner fuel requirements to reduce the emissions of ozone-forming pollutants from construction equipment and other large non-road engines would make a major contribution to healthier air quality.
The proposed settlement was filed in United States District Court for the District of Columbia (Docket No. 02-2239).
Howard Fox, Earthjustice, 202-667-4500
Diane Maple, American Lung Association 202-785-3355
Anne Weeks, Clean Air Task Force, 617-292-0234
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