Earthjustice Suit Soon May Make Breathing Easier In Alabama

EPA must weigh stronger air pollution controls in Birmingham


Ken Goldman


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As a result of a federal court decision issued late Wednesday, Earthjustice attorney David Baron predicted that residents of Birmingham, Alabama, could receive greater protection from air pollution. In a suit brought by Earthjustice, the court ruled that EPA must decide within four months whether to reclassify Birmingham to a more stringent air pollution category under the Clean Air Act. The Birmingham area violates federal health standards for ozone (smog) and reclassification would trigger requirements for stronger pollution controls at factories, power plants, and other industrial facilities.

The court ruled that EPA was years behind schedule in deciding whether to require more protective anti-pollution requirements. “This sort of delay threatens people’s health and flouts the Clean Air Act,” said Baron. “Children, asthmatics, and others with lung ailments should not have to wait years for EPA to make these decisions.”

The ruling affects Jefferson and Shelby counties, Alabama, which encompass the Birmingham metropolitan area. Under the 1990 Clean Air Act, this area was initially classified as a marginal ozone nonattainment area and was given a 1993 deadline for meeting the ozone standard. The law required EPA to decide by mid-1994 whether marginal areas had attained the standard, and to reclassify them to a more stringent category – moderate – if they did not. Failure of a moderate area to meet the ozone standard by 1996 would trigger reclassification of the area to serious, and failure of a serious area to meet the standard by 1999 would trigger reclassification of the area to severe. Each reclassification would bring with it successively more stringent pollution control requirements. Earthjustice argued that EPA nullified this graduated approach to pollution control by failing more than eight years ago to make the legally required findings.

“The people of Birmingham deserve the same level of health protection that EPA already requires in many other areas throughout the nation,” Baron said.

A principal component of urban smog, ozone is a severe lung irritant – event in healthy adults. It damages lung tissue, reduces lung function, increases risk of infection, and causes such symptoms as chest pain, shortness of breath, nausea, and pulmonary congestion. Ozone presents an increased health risk in small children, the elderly, and people with lung ailments.

The ruling comes in a suit filed by Earthjustice on behalf of the Sierra Club in US District Court in Washington, DC. The decision by US District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly was delivered to attorneys late Wednesday. The ruling adopts a recommendation issued by a federal magistrate last March.

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