Environmental and health groups today challenged a decision by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that shifts the fines for ozone pollution in central California away from major industrial sources and onto San Joaquin Valley residents through an additional tax on vehicle registration.
The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, claims that EPA violated the federal Clean Air Act when it waived the fines on most stationary sources of ozone in the Valley.
“The Clean Air Act imposes fees on polluters to create a financial incentive to stop polluting,” said attorney Paul Cort with the public interest law firm Earthjustice. “When the EPA decided that vehicle drivers should pick up the tab, the agency ignored not just the letter of the law but the whole purpose of the law itself.”
The health impacts of ozone air pollution—often called smog—are well documented, ranging from asthma attacks to respiratory disease to death. The San Joaquin Valley in central California has some of the worst ozone pollution in the country. Even though the Clean Air Act provided a twenty-year period to reduce ozone levels, the Valley failed to attain the national 1-hour standard for ozone by the 2010 statutory deadline. That failure triggered a per-ton fee on ozone-related emissions from major industrial sources.
The San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District, however, gutted this mandated incentive by adopting an ozone fee rule that exempts most industrial sources. Instead, the district began collecting “equivalent” funds from a vehicle registration surcharge of $12 per year for each automobile. In August 2012, EPA approved the rule, claiming the discretion to permit equivalent alternatives even if they do not comply with statutory requirements.
“The Environmental Protection Agency’s decision is a direct contradiction to its mission of protecting human health and the environment, and fails to take comprehensive steps forward in reducing air pollution in the San Joaquin Valley,” said Emily Schrepf, Central Valley Program Manager for the National Parks Conservation Association. “Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks reported more than 70 days of ozone standard violations last year, and the agency’s decision continues to put millions of annual national park visitors, and the economies that they help support, at risk.”
“As a Registered Respiratory Therapist, I see first-hand the effect that ozone pollution has on the health of my patients,” said Kevin Hamilton, founder of the group Medical Advocates for Healthy Air of Fresno. “For decades the residents of the San Joaquin Valley have been subsidizing polluters with their lungs, and now EPA wants them to subsidize them financially as well.”
The petition for review asks the court to overturn the EPA’s decision that permits the local air board to waive fees for industrial polluters. The suit was filed by Earthjustice on behalf of Medical Advocates for Healthy Air, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Latinos United for Clean Air, the National Parks Conservation Association, and the Sierra Club.