As EPA Watches, Girl Chokes on Central Valley Smog

Dramatic incident demonstrates need for cleaning up the air

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The red flag was flying two weeks ago in the California city of Arvin—a warning to residents of the nation’s smoggiest city to stay indoors away from the choking air. And that’s just where many residents were during a public hearing by the Environmental Protection Agency into the area’s smog conditions.

Even the EPA Region 9 administrator was there, listening intently to a stream of complaints about breathing conditions, when, suddenly, a little girl suffered an asthma attack and was rushed away for treatment.

There couldn’t have been a more dramatic way to drive home why Earthjustice is marshalling legal efforts to get the air cleaned up in California’s central valley.

The valley has been a dire place to breathe for a long time. Growing up in the valley, I remember summertime as the season of play—our days consumed by soccer and swimming, playing with dogs and riding bikes.

I also remember running out of breath and coughing up black phlegm because of air pollution. After just the first half of a soccer match kids would be sent to the bench, replaced by a fresh player who could stand the heat and the pollution.

The valley still receives failing grades in every category of air quality measurements. Valley cities continue to rank in the top five most polluted in the country, competing for the top spots with the likes of Los Angeles and Pittsburg. And the valley’s children suffer from asthma at rates more than twice the national average.

On bad air days, ominous red flags are flown from the flagpoles at elementary schools, warning parents to keep their children inside out the polluted air. This week, that system was expanded, so now parents and coaches can use "the nation’s first real-time pollution alert network." Under the new system, subscribers will be able to go online and find out if the water polo match should be cancelled, or whether recess should be held indoors, despite a sunny day outdoors.

This effort is to protect the children, of course. Applying all this technology is politically easier than actually cracking down on industrial and agricultural polluters who use the pink lungs of our children to subsidize their dirty deeds. Those officials in charge of cleaning up the valley’s air should be embarrassed that 40 years after the passage of the Clean Air Act, the best they can offer children is a color-coded warning system forcing them to spend their summers indoors.

That’s why Earthjustice stepped in to launch a series of legal actions to force this region (long-neglected by the EPA and the local air district) to clean up its act.

Since 2001, Earthjustice has filed (and won) multiple lawsuits, forcing the agencies in charge of cleaning up the Valley’s air to finally do their jobs. It’s been slow going, but plans for cleaning the air (called State Implementation Plans) have finally been assembled, and now we’re fighting to make sure those plans are aggressive enough to work.

We’ve had to challenge some of these plans, and the regulations that make them up, for being far too weak to really do any good. Recently, we sued EPA for approving the valley’s plan to reduce ozone pollution under the 1-hour ozone standard—a standard that has now been replaced with a new, more health-protective standard.

Just last year, EPA said the plan was good enough to clean up the valley’s air by the summer of 2010—yet here we are in September of 2010 and still the air is so dirty that red flags are flying and children are suffering asthma attacks right in front of these same EPA officials who gave the plan their blessing.

Perhaps having experienced what it’s like for themselves, EPA will finally do the right thing and withdraw its approval for a plan that has clearly failed to make the air safe for residents.

An Earthjustice staff member from 1999 until 2015, Brian used outreach and partnership skills to cover many issues, including advocacy campaign efforts to promote a healthy ocean.