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EPA Sued for Failure to Enforce Air Pollution Laws in Central California

Two years of inaction from regulators forces federal lawsuit by clean air advocates
June 23, 2011
Oakland, CA —

In a lawsuit filed today under the Clean Air Act, the Sierra Club and Medical Advocates for Healthy Air have asked a federal judge to compel the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to adopt required emission controls on industrial polluters that contribute to the extreme ozone problems in California’s San Joaquin Valley.

Ozone, the chief component of smog, has been shown to damage lungs, worsen asthma, trigger respiratory-related hospital admissions and increase premature deaths. The San Joaquin Valley is regularly ranked by the American Lung Association as one of the most ozone-polluted regions in the nation. Major industrial sources of ozone pollution are required by law to apply “reasonable available control technology” (RACT) to reduce emissions and meet federal standards. Those standards have never been met in the Valley and EPA has yet to take action to curb the violations.

“There is no human right more basic than the right to breathe clean air,” points out Wendy Park, attorney for Earthjustice. “The local Valley Air District, the state Air Resources Board, and the federal EPA have all failed to defend that right and the health of the citizens they are supposed to protect. If the EPA will not follow the law, it is up to citizens to force them.”

Earthjustice, the public interest law firm representing the Sierra Club and Medical Advocates for Healthy Air, filed the lawsuit in the U.S. District Court of Northern California. The suit claims EPA has violated the Clean Air Act and seeks an injunction requiring EPA to implement RACT for sources of ozone where the federal ozone standards have not been attained.

Speaking for the local Kern-Kaweah Chapter of the Sierra Club, chairperson Georgette Theotig says, "The EPA's failure to act by adopting required emissions controls for the San Joaquin Valley is an ongoing disappointment and major health risk. Improved air quality for valley residents can be attainable if our government agencies take responsible and timely action instead of delaying plan implementations."

“We already know the dangers of breathing ozone,” adds Kevin Hamilton, a Registered Respiratory Therapist and founder of the group Medical Advocates for Healthy Air of Fresno. “Yet the EPA continues to drag its heels when it comes to protecting people’s health in the San Joaquin Valley. It needs to stop now!”

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.

The one-hour ozone standard was established by EPA 30 years ago to limit the maximum concentration of ozone that people can be exposed to over a one-hour period. In 1990 Congress amended the Clean Air Act, setting firm deadlines for meeting the standard and outlining the new minimum requirements for state and local air quality plans.

The One-Hour Ozone Plan submitted by the Valley Air District in 2004 included a chapter purporting to show that the district had adopted the necessary regulations to meet the RACT requirement. In 2006, the district submitted another RACT demonstration. This one purporting to fulfill the control requirements related to the 8-hour ozone standard adopted by EPA in 1997.

Environmental groups including Earthjustice provided extensive evidence to EPA that neither demonstration was valid, and that many of the district’s regulations failed to require reasonably available controls. The EPA raised many of these concerns with the district, which led the district to withdraw the RACT demonstration portion of the 2004 Plan and commit to update the 2006 demonstration. As a result, on January 21, 2009, EPA issued a finding that the district had failed to submit the required RACT portion of the ozone plan. This finding initiated a 2-year clock for EPA either to approve a revised demonstration or to adopt the missing RACT rules. The EPA, thus, had a deadline of January 21, 2011 to adopt federal substitute RACT measures, but the agency failed to take action.

The district submitted a revised RACT demonstration in June 2009, which EPA deemed administratively complete on December 11, 2009. The EPA must approve (or disapprove) such submittals within 12 months after the completeness finding. This created a separate deadline for the EPA to act on the revised RACT submittal by December 11, 2010, and the EPA is in violation of that deadline as well.

With the EPA failure to correct the situation, the Sierra Club and Medical Advocates for Healthy Air are now filing a citizen’s deadline suit presenting two claims: one for the missed December 11, 2010 deadline for acting on the district’s revised RACT submittal, and the other for missing the January 21, 2011 deadline for adopting federal replacement rules.

Read the complaint.

Contacts

Paul Cort, Earthjustice, (510) 550-6777

Kevin Hamilton, Medical Advocates for Healthy Air, (559) 288-5244

About Earthjustice

Earthjustice is the premier nonprofit environmental law organization. We wield the power of law and the strength of partnership to protect people’s health, to preserve magnificent places and wildlife, to advance clean energy, and to combat climate change. We are here because the earth needs a good lawyer.