A dozen public health and clean air advocacy groups petitioned the EPA today to address gaping holes in state plans to reduce air pollution in the Central Valley. In 1990, Congress promised that even the worst polluted areas of the country, including the San Joaquin Valley, would be required to meet ozone air pollution limits no later than today, November 15, 2010. The San Joaquin Valley has failed to meet the deadline. The groups’ petition sets the stage for either a federal response or a likely lawsuit.
Over the last 20 years, state and federal air quality officials have repeatedly failed to act to clean up the San Joaquin Valley’s air pollution and instead have allowed high concentrations of ozone (smog) to persist with deadly consequences to the people who live there.
Under the Clean Air Act, the federal EPA establishes national air quality standards deemed necessary to protect public health. States and local air districts are responsible for making a plan to meet those national standards. Over 30 years ago, EPA established the one-hour ozone standard, which limits the maximum concentration of ozone people can be exposed to over a one-hour period. The one-hour ozone standard was aimed at limiting dangerous peaks in air pollution that studies found triggered asthma attacks and other breathing problems, and were linked to spikes in emergency room visits and deaths. After a decade of little progress toward meeting the ozone standard, Congress amended the Clean Air Act in 1990 setting firm deadlines for meeting the standard and outlining the new minimum requirements for state and local air quality plans.
Earlier this year, after decades of missed deadlines and lawsuits, EPA finally approved the San Joaquin Valley Air District’s plan to meet the 1-hour standard. The air district had adopted the plan in 2004. Valley advocates, however, objected to EPA’s late approval, pointing to various legal defects and noting that air quality data showed that the 2004 Plan had done nothing to improve ozone concentrations in the Valley. EPA continues to defend the 2004 Plan despite the fact that air quality data now show the Valley has failed to meet the ozone standard by the legal deadline. Valley advocates filed today’s petition because they are concerned that EPA has signaled an intention to ignore the Valley’s failure to attain and to take no further action to require a new 1-hour ozone plan.
"Peoples’ lives are at stake here. The people of the Valley continue to breathe the dirtiest air in the nation. Our children suffer some of the highest asthma rates and our elderly suffer some of the highest rates of heart disease," said Kevin Hamilton, a Registered Respiratory Therapist and founder of the group Medical Advocates for Healthy Air. "We’ve waited long enough for the responsible agencies to address our health crisis. We need action and we need it now."
Since 2004, when the 1-hour ozone plan was submitted to EPA, the Valley has violated the 1-hour ozone standard an average of 10 days per year from 2005 through 2010. In 2005—the year after the air district adopted its 1-hour ozone plan—the Valley experienced 8 days of violations of the standard. Five years later, in the summer of 2010, the Valley had seven days of violations. To comply with the standard, an area can have no more than 1 violation day per year on average.
Earthjustice attorney Paul Cort said, "The law is clear, and so is the need for EPA leadership. We keep hearing that environmental justice is a priority for this Administration, that the Valley’s air quality is a priority for the EPA in San Francisco. But if the Agency refuses to address this failure to meet the 30-year old ozone standard, how are Valley residents supposed to believe EPA will ever really help them?"
The groups’ petition says the EPA must notify the state and local air district of the inadequacies in the 1-hour ozone plan and require the state to fix them and resubmit the plan within 18 months after the date of such notice.
Ozone is a secondary pollutant formed by the chemical reaction between oxides of nitrogen ("NOx") and volatile organic compounds ("VOCs") in the presence of sunlight. Both of these compounds come from the exhaust of cars, trucks, construction and farm machines, oil refineries, factories and other air pollution sources. Ozone reacts with internal body tissues causing damage to lungs, exacerbation of asthma, reduction of lung capacity, increased respiratory-related hospital admissions, and even premature death. The health impacts are disproportionately felt by the most vulnerable—children, the elderly, and persons already suffering from respiratory ailments.