In a suit by Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, a federal appellate court in Washington today ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency had failed to justify its refusal to protect asthmatics from harmful effects of sulfur dioxide air pollution. The court sent the matter back to the agency for further explanation.
"Asthma afflicts millions of Americans, and EPA itself conceded that many thousands of them are at risk of asthma attacks caused by sulfur dioxide pollution," said Howard Fox of Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, which represents American Lung Association, a plaintiff in the suit. "EPA's decision not to protect against these harmful health impairments didn't make any sense, so the court sent the agency back to the drawing board."
Sulfur dioxide is emitted from electric power plants, industrial boilers, petroleum refineries, pulp and paper mills, sulfuric acid plants, and aluminum smelters. Existing national health standards for sulfur dioxide have long averaging times (one year and twenty-four hours) and thus fail to protect against short-term peaks or "bursts" that can occur near pollution sources. Many communities regularly experience repeated short-term peaks at levels that can cause asthma attacks.
"For nearly two decades, public health advocates have been trying to persuade EPA to protect asthmatics against short-term sulfur dioxide peaks," said Fox. "After all that foot-dragging, the agency came up with a decision that raised more questions than it answered. The court said a second look is required, and we agree."
The suit was brought by attorneys Howard Fox of Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund and Robert Yuhnke of Boulder, Colorado on behalf of American Lung Association and other plaintiffs. In American Lung Association v. EPA, D.C. Cir. 96-1251.