The suit asks the Court to order disapproval of state and local air pollution plans for the region, a move that could require redirection of transportation dollars away from new roads and toward better mass transit.
At issue is the Washington area's continued violation of federal health standards for ozone (smog), a severe lung irritant that is particularly dangerous to children, persons with asthma, and senior citizens. Elevated ozone levels have been linked to increased hospital and emergency room visits, and symptoms such as chest pain, nausea, and pulmonary congestion.
Earlier this year, EPA "conditionally" approved regional air pollution plans that a federal Court ruled inadequate last year. EPA also let state and local officials put off additional pollution controls for another year, and to delay until 2005 a nine percent pollution cut that was due in 2002. The Earthjustice suit contends that these actions violate the Clean Air Act and threaten the health of thousands of area residents.
"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. 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."
The current appeals court case follows two prior suits last year in which Earthjustice successfully argued that EPA had violated the Clean Air Act by delaying action on dirty air in the nation's capital.
"Clean air is a necessity, not a luxury," said Sierra Club spokesperson Mark Wenzler.
"We need an effective, enforceable plan to get the necessary pollution reductions for healthy air, and we need it now," said Wenzler, who chairs the DC chapter of the Sierra Club. "The residents of Metropolitan Washington have waited too long to breathe healthy air because of delays from EPA,"
Sierra Club, Earthjustice, and other environmental groups have criticized a draft clean air plan released last month by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments for offering too little in the way in additional controls on motor vehicle exhaust, and for putting off needed measures until at least next year.
"We contend that EPA's actions directly defy prior court rulings, as well as the Clean Air Act's deadlines," said Earthjustice attorney Baron. "The Clean Air Act was created to protect the air we breathe, so its deadlines need to be taken seriously."