Clean air advocates in California’s polluted San Joaquin Valley and L.A. Basin announced today their intent to sue the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for its failure to enforce 30-year old pollution standards required by the Clean Air Act. The lawsuits would force the EPA to adopt a plan to bring California air quality into compliance with the federal standard for ozone.
Earthjustice today filed a letter on behalf of San Joaquin Valley advocates, Medical Advocates for Healthy Air and the Sierra Club, putting the EPA on notice that if the agency doesn’t act on the Valley’s failure to attain the 1-hour ozone standard within 60 days, the groups will sue. The one-hour ozone standard limits the maximum concentration of ozone people can be exposed to over a one-hour period.
L.A.-based groups Physicians for Social Responsibility-Los Angeles, Desert Citizens Against Pollution, Natural Resources Defense Council, the Coalition for a Safe Environment, and Communities for a Better Environment filed a similar notice today relating to the failure in the L.A. region to meet the standard.
Ozone, a major component of smog, is a long-standing health threat across the nation, but California leads the way as the most dangerous place to breathe. Of the ten U.S. cities with the worst air quality, eight are in California, according to the American Lung Association’s annual State of the Air report released in April. Los Angeles and Bakersfield top the list as the smoggiest cities in the country.
Under the Clean Air Act, even the worst polluted areas of the country, like the San Joaquin Valley and the L.A. Basin, were required to meet the national one-hour standard for ozone no later than November 15, 2010. Air quality monitoring data from 2010 showed that the San Joaquin Valley did not attain that standard by the statutory deadline. Neither did L.A.
Paul Cort, an attorney with the nonprofit law firm Earthjustice who is representing the San Joaquin Valley groups, said, “This pollution limit was put in place decades ago. While most of the country has made progress in cleaning up the air and is moving on to address new, more protective pollution limits, the San Joaquin Valley and L.A. still can’t even comply with the weakest ozone standard—and EPA is refusing to make them. Meanwhile, people are dying.”
“The San Joaquin Valley has a public health crisis on its hands. Our children suffer some of the highest asthma rates and our elderly some of the highest rates of heart disease,” said Kevin Hamilton, a Registered Respiratory Therapist and founder of the group Medical Advocates for Healthy Air of Fresno. “We’ve waited long enough for the responsible agencies to do their jobs. We need action and we need it now.”
The same is true in the notoriously smoggy L.A. region.
“Ozone pollution exacerbates asthma, causes lung damage, and leads to premature deaths everywhere in L.A.,” explains Maya Golden-Krasner, an attorney with Communities for a Better Environment in L.A. “These harms are magnified in communities such as Wilmington and southeast L.A., where pollution from freeways and industrial sources already chokes neighborhoods.”
“The human costs of our failure to reduce ozone pollution are felt most acutely by the thousands of families who live with asthma. The economic cost of asthma stands at $2.6 billion, but the human costs are incalculable. Just imagine the pain of watching your child gasp for air during an acute asthma attack. We must get serious about protecting health and keeping health care costs down, and one way to accomplish this is to have EPA enforce the one hour ozone standard,” said Martha Dina Arguello, Executive Director of Physicians for Social Responsibility-Los Angeles.
When the deadline to meet the standard was missed back in November, Medical Advocates for Healthy Air and the Sierra Club petitioned the EPA asking for an official finding that the San Joaquin Valley’s 1-hour ozone plan had failed. This would trigger the need to put together a new plan that would meet the standard within five years. The EPA, however, has refused to respond to the petition, instead suggesting that the people of the Valley and the L.A. region should wait another 13 years for the next round of clean air standards to be met. The anticipated lawsuits would demand action immediately.
The one-hour ozone standard is aimed at limiting dangerous peaks in air pollution that trigger asthma attacks and other breathing problems and are linked to spikes in emergency room visits and deaths. After a decade of little progress toward meeting the ozone standard, Congress amended the Clean Air Act in 1990 setting firm deadlines for meeting the standard and outlining the new minimum requirements for state and local air quality plans.
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 equipment, oil refineries, factories and other air pollution sources. Ozone reacts with internal body tissues causing damage to lungs, exacerbation of asthma, reduction of lung capacity, increased respiratory-related hospital admissions, and even premature death. The health impacts are disproportionately felt by the most vulnerable—children, the elderly, and persons already suffering from respiratory ailments.