On Friday, March 7, at 4:59 pm, EPA Region IX quietly released a highly contested decision that the particulate matter pollution (i.e., the dust, soot, and smoke that frequently turn the skies brown in the fall and winter) in the San Joaquin Valley of California is no longer a concern for residents or lawmakers.
A coalition of conservation and public health organizations filed suit in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals challenging this decision. The problem, say advocates, is that dangerous levels of this pollution are still being recorded by air quality monitors and EPA's dismissal of this inconvenient data violates the public health standards of the federal Clean Air Act.
"EPA would like valley residents to disregard dozens of violation days," said Earthjustice attorney Erin Tobin. "This is not about the air being clean. The problem is still there, EPA has just invented a new way to ignore it -- by blaming every dirty air day on 'high winds' even though we know the real cause is poorly regulated industrialized activities."
EPA's newly-invented "affirmation" finding depends on the agency's assertion that it can ignore violations of the health standard if they are caused by exceptionally high winds. However, since the winds EPA is trying to claim as exceptional were nothing more than a "light breeze," they were simply not capable of causing the widespread violations that continue to plague the valley every fall and winter.
Despite EPA's claims, the valley's air remains a danger to public health. One in five children in Fresno County has been diagnosed with asthma, and the valley suffers from some of the worst air pollution and childhood asthma rates in country.
"It's not just a violation of the law, it is complete and total disregard for our health," said Kevin Hall, long-time Fresno resident and Air Quality Chair of the Sierra Club's Tehipite Chapter. "The cause of this pollution hasn't changed; it's only our government's willingness to keep fighting for clean air that has changed. Once again, this EPA is ignoring our suffering to protect polluters."
"When I stop seeing Valley residents in the emergency room gasping for breath, then I'll believe that the Valley has clean air," says respiratory therapist and Fresno resident Kevin Hamilton. "Until then, we'll see EPA in court."
Earthjustice is representing three San Joaquin Valley chapters of the Sierra Club and the Fresno-based Medical Advocates for Healthy Air in this legal action.
Read the filing (PDF)
Erin Tobin, Earthjustice, (510) 550-6725
Kevin Hall, Sierra Club, (559) 244-1842
Kevin Hamilton, Medical Advocates for Healthy Air, (559) 288-5244