Advocates for clean air in California’s polluted San Joaquin Valley filed a federal lawsuit today against the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for its refusal to address the Valley’s failure to meet the national ozone standard adopted by the EPA over 30 years ago. The suit aims to force the EPA to adopt a plan to bring air quality in the Valley into compliance with the national ozone standard.
The public-interest law firm Earthjustice filed the suit in the U.S. District Court of Northern California on behalf of Medical Advocates for Healthy Air and the Sierra Club. Environmental groups in the Los Angeles area filed a similar suit this week against the EPA, demanding the same enforcement of smog regulations in the L.A. air basin.
Ozone, a major component of smog, is a long-standing health threat across the nation, but L.A. and the San Joaquin Valley in California consistently rank as the most dangerous places to breathe. Of the ten U.S. cities with the worst air quality, eight are in California and four are in the San Joaquin Valley, according to the American Lung Association’s annual State of the Air report released in April. Los Angeles and Bakersfield top the list as the smoggiest cities in the country.
“The government air agencies have had over 20 years to clean up the San Joaquin Valley’s extreme ozone pollution but they have missed one deadline after another,” said Earthjustice attorney Erin Tobin. “EPA cannot ignore the public health crisis caused by ozone pollution in the Valley any longer. It is time for EPA to act.”
Under the federal Clean Air Act, even the worst polluted areas of the country, like the San Joaquin Valley and the L.A. region, were required to meet the national one-hour standard for ozone no later than November 15, 2010. The one-hour ozone standard limits the maximum concentration of ozone that people can be exposed to over a one-hour period. Air quality monitoring data from 2010 showed that the San Joaquin Valley did not attain that standard by the statutory deadline. Neither did L.A.
This delay is unacceptable to Kevin Hamilton, a registered respiratory therapist and founder of the group Medical Advocates for Healthy Air of Fresno. “Valley doctors and their patients are tired of waiting for political appointees to obey the law and clean up our air. Finish what you started! Clean the air!” urged Hamilton.
“Exposure to peaks in afternoon ozone levels damages the health of Valley residents. Peak levels can send folks with asthma or other illness to the hospital, even on days labeled as 'moderate,'” said Sierra Club Tehipite Chapter Vice-Chair Gary Lasky. “A 24-hour average conceals these ‘spikes’ in ozone data. We need this one-hour measure to protect our most vulnerable populations.”
When the San Joaquin Valley missed the deadline to comply with the ozone standard back in November 2010, Medical Advocates for Healthy Air and the Sierra Club, along with other concerned community groups, petitioned the EPA asking for an official finding that the San Joaquin Valley’s one-hour ozone plan had failed. Such a finding automatically triggers the need to put together a new plan for how to meet the ozone standard within five years. To date, the EPA has failed to respond to the petition.
Today’s lawsuit seeks a court order forcing the EPA to make an immediate decision as to whether the Valley has failed to attain the one-hour ozone standard.
In a parallel lawsuit filed by Earthjustice last month, Sierra Club and Medical Advocates for Healthy Air asked the court to compel the EPA to adopt overdue ozone regulations on industrial polluters in the San Joaquin Valley. That lawsuit is still pending.
The one-hour ozone standard is aimed at limiting dangerous peaks in air pollution that trigger asthma attacks and other breathing problems. These increased emissions are 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.
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 equipment, 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.