“Do Nothing” Toxic Ozone Rule Challenged by Health and Environmental Groups
Today, 14 health and environmental groups, half of them represented by Earthjustice, challenged ozone standards in a lawsuit in a federal appeals court. The move comes in response to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Trump administration’s last-minute refusal to strengthen the National Ambient Air Quality Standards, or NAAQS, for ozone, and less than a month after Earthjustice sued the EPA over a similar rule affecting particulate matter.
EPA issued the flawed rule in late December, leaving 2015 standards in place. Those standards were set at a level that allowed pollution in our cities that scientific studies show harms vulnerable populations and children’s health. Since 2015, additional scientific evidence confirms that ground level ozone at levels allowed by EPA is harmful to human health. Last month, Washington, D.C.’s circuit court struck down rules that relaxed EPA’s implementation of ozone standards and closed important loopholes, ensuring that states will have to take necessary steps to bring polluted areas into compliance with ozone standards.
“The Trump administration corrupted and rushed the scientific review process of this rule as it walked out the door, just so industrial polluters can sit and do nothing for the harm they cause,” said Seth Johnson, lead Earthjustice attorney on the case. “These outdated ozone standards must be corrected not just for children’s safety and public health, but also because they are critical to addressing the climate crisis.”
While ozone is good as a protective layer in the stratosphere, ground-level ozone causes asthma attacks and other respiratory problems. It is linked to premature deaths, damages plants and forests, and stunts tree and crop growth. Formed by emissions from cars, trucks, and factories, ozone is also a greenhouse gas, and curtailing it is a powerful way to help solve the climate crisis.
“The most recent science shows that ozone standards are simply not strong enough to protect the lungs of our neighborhoods, or the crops and forests we depend on,” the coalition of groups challenging the rule said. “As we fight in court for long overdue safeguards, we call on the Biden administration to listen to the science and take action.”
According to a recent report by the American Lung Association, more than 134 million people live in counties that have dangerous levels of ozone — many of which are disproportionately low income communities and communities of color.
Earthjustice represents the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Lung Association, American Public Health Association, Appalachian Mountain Club, National Parks Conservation Association, Natural Resources Defense Council, and Sierra Club. The Clean Air Task Force represents the Clean Air Council, Conservation Law Foundation, and Natural Resources Council of Maine. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Environment America, Environmental Defense Fund, and Environmental Law & Policy Center have also signed on to the challenge. The suit was filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
Quotes from our clients and partners:
Georgia Murray, Staff Scientist for the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC):
“The delays in protection of our health, ecosystems, and climate by this inaction are unacceptable. Tropospheric ozone continues to pollute outdoor spaces which should instead be healthy for all. The science clearly shows that a stronger limit is needed to protect public health and also support separate standards to protect plants and the environment. The negative impacts of ozone to plants and ecosystems include a litany of insults including visible foliar injury, productivity declines, biomass loss, altered nutrient and water cycling, changes in community structure, and disruption of plant-insect interactions. We need stronger science-based standards to address ozone’s impacts on the air we breathe and natural ecosystems that we cherish.”
Stephanie Kodish, Clean Air Program Director for the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA):
“Despite the overwhelming evidence that keeping the current, insufficient ozone standards in place will result in continued harm to the health of our communities and national parks, the Trump administration chose to disregard the science and turn its back on our most vulnerable populations and the environment. People visit national parks thinking the air is clean, but ground level ozone contributes to poor air quality, affecting parks across the country from Cape Cod National Seashore in Massachusetts, to Yosemite in California. Ozone is a potent greenhouse gas contributing to climate harms in Arctic landscapes and ecosystems in Denali. It also damages park plants like the Quaking Aspen tree at Rocky Mountain, reduces crop yield and limits tree growth. The EPA must revise ozone standards to follow the science and protect the health of our people and environment; otherwise, the consequences could be dire.”
Vijay Limaye, climate and health scientist, NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council):
“For nearly half a century, the Clean Air Act has helped protect the country from the health consequences of dirty air. That protection is critical for all of us, but especially children, older people, communities of color and low income communities who are disproportionately burdened by higher levels of pollution in the air. This case challenges the Trump administration’s abdication of its responsibility under that law to protect people by following the science. The science clearly calls for more protective ozone standards.”
Al Armendariz, Senior Director of Federal Campaigns, Sierra Club:
“Watching a child have an asthma attack is one of the most heart wrenching experiences that any parent can have, but it happens all too often in our country due to lax clean air safeguards like the ones the Trump administration left unchanged on its way out the door. Our lawsuit isn’t some partisan exercise to spike the football: it’s about the child who feels their chest tighten when they are outside in the summer and the worried look their parents get when they hear them start wheezing. No child and no parent should have to experience this in the United States, and it’s the EPA’s job to honestly and forthrightly put in place standards to protect families from this. Our lawsuit is about making sure EPA lives up to those expectations, because every family deserves clean air and peace of mind.”
Ann Weeks, Legal Director, Clean Air Task Force:
“The Trump EPA sidelined the science and ignored mounting evidence that serious health harms occur due to ozone exposures at levels below the current national standards. We urge the Biden administration to prioritize setting a standard based in science that recognizes these harms. Stronger ozone standards are needed to better protect public health and to reduce damage to the environment. Implementing stronger standards will also reduce climate pollution. In short, stronger ozone standards are needed to help to achieve the administration’s climate and environmental justice goals.”
Ariel Solaski, Staff Litigation Attorney, Chesapeake Bay Foundation:
“The Trump EPA’s refusal to strengthen ozone standards not only endangers people’s health, it undermines the Chesapeake Bay cleanup effort. Federal ozone controls are essential to reduce emissions of nitrogen oxides, an ozone precursor. Airborne nitrogen causes roughly one-third of nitrogen pollution fouling the Bay and its waterways. Ozone damages trees and plants critical to improving water quality. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation will fight for science-based standards that fulfill EPA’s responsibility to restore and protect the Bay, as well as the health of the watershed’s most vulnerable residents.”
Rachel Fullmer, Senior Attorney, Environmental Defense Fund:
“The EPA is legally required to ensure that our national standards are set at a level that protects public health — including a margin of safety for particularly impacted groups. Tens of millions of Americans already live in an area with unhealthy levels of ground-level ozone pollution, and the Trump EPA’s rushed decision to maintain the current standard particularly harms those who are more susceptible to air pollution, including children, the elderly, anyone working outdoors, and people with asthma or other heart and lung diseases. This action has significant environmental justice impacts and disproportionately harms Black communities and low-income communities where there are higher rates of childhood asthma and other chronic diseases.”
Ann Jaworski, Staff Attorney, Environmental Law & Policy Center:
“When the Trump EPA found that the 2015 ozone standard was still adequate to protect human health and the environment, it ignored the Clean Air Act’s requirement to use the best available science. We hope that the court will reverse this decision and that the Biden administration will respect the science and enact tougher standards so that people living in the U.S. are assured cleaner, safer air to breathe.”
Morgan Folger, Destination: Zero Carbon Campaign Director, Environment America:
“No one should experience one day of polluted air — let alone months. Ozone pollution is getting worse and the current pollution standards are not doing enough to prevent people from getting sick. Tens of thousands of people have their lives cut short annually from adverse health impacts linked to air pollution. This legal challenge is just part of a necessary overall effort to ensure we strengthen air quality protections in order to save lives.”
Earthjustice is the premier nonprofit environmental law organization. We wield the power of law and the strength of partnership to protect people’s health, to preserve magnificent places and wildlife, to advance clean energy, and to combat climate change. We are here because the earth needs a good lawyer.