Community and environmental groups filed three lawsuits, and gave notice of their intent to file more, against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday over the agency's failure to ensure air pollution in California is reduced to safe levels as required by law. The groups want EPA to comply with the Clean Air Act by finally cracking down on the California Air Resources Board and local air quality control boards which have allowed pollution problems to continue.
Two suits, filed in U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit in San Francisco, challenge EPA's approval of the 2004 San Joaquin Valley plan to meet the national 1-hour ozone standard by 2010. EPA's action, which was over four years late, only happened because the San Joaquin Valley-based Association of Irritated Residents went to court to force EPA to act.
The third lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California in Oakland, challenges EPA's refusal to act on the San Joaquin Valley's 2007 8-hour ozone plan despite its deadline for action having passed more than a year ago.
The lawsuits were filed on behalf of Medical Advocates for Healthy Air and the Sierra Club by Earthjustice, and on behalf of Committee for a Better Arvin, Comité Residentes Organizados al Servicio del Ambiente Sano (Comité ROSAS), and Association of Irritated Residents by the Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment.
"Arvin has the most ozone-polluted air in the United States because the Air Resources Board and the EPA don't care enough about us to make sure that ozone pollution is cleaned up on time," said Salvador Partida, Co-Chair of the Committee for a Better Arvin. "We are suing EPA today because EPA has approved a plan that has failed: the Valley will not meet the 2010 deadline."
"Once again the EPA has failed the San Joaquin Valley," said Kevin Hamilton of Medical Advocates for Healthy Air in Fresno. "Our asthma rates are twice that of those in places with cleaner air, yet our local air pollution board and the Air Resources Board cater to the people causing the problem, and the EPA has been AWOL for decades. How long must my wife, children, grandchildren and those of all my patients wait to breathe clean air! EPA, you work for us -- now get to work!"
Charles Ashley from Sierra Club's Tehipite Chapter in Fresno agreed: "The health impacts are devastating as are the impacts on our natural surroundings and on the productivity of one of the nation's most important agricultural regions. It is time for stern measures."
Among the objections to the 1-hour ozone plan is the State's refusal to allow EPA to include the many rules that the State claims will reduce emissions from cars and trucks. "EPA refused to review 180 car and truck regulations, yet claims that those car and truck regulations achieve 75 percent of the ozone pollution reductions," said Maria Covarrubias of Comité ROSAS. "EPA's job is to ensure that those car and truck regulations do what the Air Resources Board claims they do. Obviously, those rules are failing because we won't meet the 2010 deadline and are still breathing ozone-polluted air in the Valley."
In addition to the lawsuits surrounding the ozone plans, groups also notified EPA that the Agency has missed deadlines for acting on the particulate matter plan for the San Joaquin Valley. A letter filed on behalf of the Association of Irritated Residents by the Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment, warns that EPA could face another round of lawsuits if the Agency does not take the required action within 60 days.
"More than a thousand people die each year from particulate matter pollution in the San Joaquin Valley," said Tom Frantz, President of the Association of Irritated Residents. "EPA's action on the particulate matter plan is four months late and we refuse to allow EPA to stand idly by while people are dying. EPA must ensure this plan cleans up this killer by the 2014 deadline."
Federal law mandates air pollution control plans for areas whose air quality falls below minimum standards. In California, where 8 municipalities made the American Lung Association's 2010 list of the 10 worst U.S. cities for ozone pollution, and 7 of the 10 worst cities for particulate pollution, creation of these plans is delegated to local air quality control boards. The Air Resources Board is responsible for regulating mobile sources, the leading source of harmful air pollution in California. EPA is responsible for reviewing those plans to ensure that they will achieve clean air by the deadlines set out in the Clean Air Act.
"The system is broken," said Paul Cort, an attorney with Earthjustice. "If we are ever going to have clean air, we need EPA to provide some leadership. Hopefully, today's actions provide a wake up call."
Though ozone in the upper atmosphere protects human health by blocking dangerous ultraviolet rays, at ground level ozone is a highly reactive and toxic pollutant that can cause serious respiratory damage when inhaled. Ozone is created in polluted air when oxides of nitrogen (NOx) and volatile organic chemicals (VOCs), both common industrial pollutants, react in the presence of sunlight. Fine particulate matter has also been linked with various cardio-respiratory problems and can lead to premature death for those already suffering with other health problems. Particulate matter can be emitted directly in the form of soot, or can be formed in the atmosphere from nitrogen oxides and sulfur oxides.
Mobile sources such as heavy duty diesel trucks, construction equipment, and agricultural machinery are currently the largest sources of NOx emissions in the San Joaquin Valley and L.A. While most VOC emissions in urban areas come from stationary industrial sources, in the Valley the largest sources of VOC are the 1,600 industrial-style dairies and oil and gas production fields.
If local air pollution control plans do not meet the approval of the EPA, EPA can adopt its own plan or take steps to motivate the local districts to comply with the law such as by suspending highway funding.
The San Joaquin Valley Air Basin is one of the most polluted air basins in the United States, which inflicts significant public health impacts. The small, rural community of Arvin in Kern County (south of Bakersfield) has 14,000 residents and the most ozone-polluted air in the United States. Between 2003 and 2008 (the most recent available data), Arvin's air pollution monitor recorded 657 days on which ozone levels exceeded the health-based 2008 eight-hour ozone standard, for an average of 109.5 days per year. During the same period Arvin's monitor logged 439 days on which ozone levels exceeded the health-based 1997 eight-hour ozone standard. Arvin's monitor logged the most violations of those two ozone standard in California in that time period. With respect to PM2.5, Arvin's monitor does not measure PM2.5, but the nearby monitor in Bakersfield logs the most days of violations of the 24-hour PM2.5 standard in California and has one of the highest PM2.5 annual average concentration in California.
The Valley must attain the 1-hour ozone standard by November 15, 2010. Despite that fact, the District's policies, including exempting new and modified agricultural sources from offsets and certain sources from permitting, have failed to deliver attainment. Between 2006 and 2008, the Arvin monitor logged 29 days of violations of the 1-hour standard, while the entire Valley violated that standard on 40 days.
Paul Cort, Earthjustice, (510) 550-6725
Savador Partida, Committee for a Better Arvin, (818) 486-1298
Maria Covarrubias, Comité ROSAS, (661) 747-8328
Tom Frantz, AIR, (661) 910-7734
Kevin Hamilton, Medical Advocates for Healthy Air, (559) 288-5244
Charles Ashley, Sierra Club, (559) 855-6376
Sofia Parino, CRPE, (916) 716-2398