Today, Citizens for Clean Air, Alaska Community Action on Toxics, and the Sierra Club filed suit against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for missing a fourth deadline in four years for addressing Fairbanks’s air pollution problem. The EPA had failed to respond to a notice of intent to sue filed 60 days ago.
With no response at all from the EPA and an ongoing lack of action from the State of Alaska, the groups have filed suit to force the agency to meet its obligations under the law. The EPA should have required the Fairbanks North Star Borough to address its pollution controls after its repeated failure to meet basic clean air standards.
The Fairbanks North Star Borough has the worst fine particulate matter air pollution in the nation — with levels spiking far in excess of the next most-polluted area and over twice the recommended limit for unhealthy air. The air pollution problems have worsened since 2009, when state and municipal officials were first advised that soot and smoke levels in Fairbanks were unhealthy and dangerous.
The type of fine particulate matter pollution prevalent in Fairbanks — 2.5 micrometers or less in diameter — has been found to cause a wide range of serious health problems, including asthma attacks, chronic respiratory disease, reduction in lung function, hospitalizations and emergency room visits for cardiopulmonary diseases, cancer, and even premature death. Fine particulate matter air pollution is a particular danger to children, reducing lung development, causing asthma, and impairing the immune system. The elderly and those with chronic disease also face heightened risks.
Sources of PM-2.5 in Fairbanks include outdoor burning; wood- and coal-burning heating devices; automobiles and other vehicles; and coal-fired power plants and other industrial facilities.
This is the fourth lawsuit Citizens for Clean Air, ACAT, and the Sierra Club have brought against the EPA for its failure to require Fairbanks to achieve compliance with air quality standards within six years after receiving a nonattainment designation, as mandated by the Clean Air Act. Citizens for Clean Air is a coalition of local community groups and individuals that has been leading the fight to improve Fairbank’s air quality.
In April 2014, the groups sued EPA for failing to move the state planning process for cleaning Fairbank’s air forward as the state repeatedly missed deadlines under the act. This helped prompt the State of Alaska to submit an overdue plan to address air pollution to EPA at the end of January 2015.
In June of 2016, the groups sued EPA for its failure to approve or disapprove the state’s plan by the statutory deadline. Later in 2016, the groups sued to compel the agency to perform its duty under the Clean Air Act to determine that the Fairbanks North Star Borough had failed to reach air quality standards and to reclassify the borough as seriously out of compliance and thus subject to stricter pollution controls. In response to this suit, EPA reclassified the Borough as a serious non-attainment area, triggering an obligation for the state to impose stricter pollution requirements. But the EPA has not taken the necessary steps to ensure that action is taken at any level to alleviate the pollution, and the state once more missed its deadline for developing a plan of action.
The groups now seek to compel EPA to perform its duty to find that Alaska has failed to submit a serious non-attainment area plan. This finding will set a deadline for the state to submit its plan. If the state fails to do so, the EPA could prepare a federal plan and must impose heightened permitting requirements for new pollution sources and other sanctions, and bring long overdue relief to the residents of Fairbanks.
Citizens for Clean Air, Alaska Community Action on Toxics, and the Sierra Club filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington (home to EPA’s regional headquarters). The groups are represented by Earthjustice, a non-profit environmental law firm with offices in Anchorage and Juneau.
The following are statements from the groups:
Patrice Lee, Citizens for Clean Air: “Citizens who are concerned about clean air and better health had hoped for a response from the EPA and the State regarding our 60-day notice of intent to file a lawsuit to enforce provisions of the Clean Air Act. That did not happen. We’ve been waiting for over ten years for action that results in cleaner air. The will and wisdom to do that have not prevailed. Our health remains on the line. Sadly, we have no choice but to once again proceed with a lawsuit to force the EPA and state to comply with the law and to keep the prospect of meaningful action to clean up our air alive.”
Pamela Miller, Executive Director, Alaska Community Action on Toxics: “The people of Fairbanks have suffered the ill effects of dangerous levels of air pollution for far too long. It’s time for the agencies to do their job and protect the health of the community. This problem can and must be solved.”
Jeremy Lieb, Associate Attorney, Earthjustice: “The Clean Air Act sets clear deadlines for planning and achieving compliance with air quality standards. The EPA and the state have repeatedly missed these deadlines, showing disregard for the health consequences of continued serious air pollution. We will continue to take legal action necessary to hold the agencies to their obligations to clean up the air in Fairbanks.”