Court Reinstates Clean Air Deadline For Metro Washington Area

Dangerous ozone levels on the rise this summer


Ken Goldman


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A federal appeals court today struck down an extension of the clean air deadline for the Washington, DC area, ruling that the delay violated federal law. Today’s decision came in a suit filed by Earthjustice to overturn the multi-year extension, which had been granted by the Environmental Protection Agency. The extension allowed the DC area to continue violating federal health standards for ozone (smog) until 2005. On behalf of the Sierra Club, Earthjustice attorney David Baron argued that the delay was illegal and threatened the health of hundreds of thousands of area residents.

“This is a great victory for clean air throughout the Washington region,” said Baron. “Delay in cleaning up dirty air threatens the health of everyone, especially our children. We have become accustomed to turning on the news to reports of dangerous ozone levels and warnings to keep our children indoors. That is simply unacceptable for the capital of our country, or for anyplace else in the United States.”

As a result of the court decision, metro Washington faces reclassification for smog pollution from serious to severe. Such a change would require stronger pollution controls on factories and power plants. The decision could also trigger legal requirements to redirect transportation spending from new roads to better mass transit.

Ozone, the main component of smog, is a severe lung irritant that damages lung tissue, reduces lung function and causes symptoms such as chest pain, nausea, and pulmonary congestion. The elderly, children, and persons with asthma are especially vulnerable. Metro DC missed a November 15, 1999 deadline for attaining the ozone health standard. The “nonattainment” area includes the District of Columbia; Calvert, Charles, Frederick, Montgomery, and Prince Georges counties in Maryland; and Alexandria, Arlington, Fairfax, Falls Church, Loudoun, Manassas, Manassas Park, as well as Prince William and Stafford counties in Virginia.

According to some estimates, breathing difficulties during a typical smoggy summer in metro DC send more than 2,400 people to the emergency room, and cause more than 130,000 asthma attacks. This summer has proven to be a dangerous one for air quality in the District: one day last week ozone levels reached EPA’s Code Purple designation. Code Purple is even more hazardous than the better-known Code Red and indicates that everyone is at risk for serious health effects from air pollution.

“This decision means we need stronger measures now to attack air pollution in our region,” said Sierra Club spokesperson Glen Besa. “The dirty air we breathe in Washington can cause asthma attacks. Moreover, even healthy children and adults can suffer lung damage from breathing the dirty air in this region.”

EPA granted the deadline extension based on claims by DC area governments that more time was needed to address air pollution transported here from other states. But the Court held that this was not a lawful basis for delay. Sierra Club contends that the Washington area violates clean air standards even when transported pollution is not a major factor.

“DC area governments cannot point fingers at other states until they have done all they can to cut pollution locally,” said Baron. “Everyone has to work together to clear the air in metropolitan Washington. The region cannot simply blame pollution produced elsewhere for our smog problems. We’re fouling our own nest.”

The Court also held that the EPA illegally approved deficient clean air plans submitted by Virginia, Maryland, and the District. The Court agreed with Earthjustice that the plans failed to assure annual cuts in regional pollution as required by law, and lacked legally required contingency measures that would kick in if required pollution reductions don’t occur. The Court also ruled that EPA failed to adequately consider additional control measures to reduce pollution, such as tougher limits on diesel exhaust from trucks and buses.

“This decision means that EPA can’t extend the clean air deadline without requiring much stronger efforts to control pollution,” said Besa

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