Public Health and Environmental Coalition Sues EPA for Allowing Corporate Agriculture in California to Evade Clean Air Act

Sector granted special treatment to avoid air pollution permits


Brian Smith/Bruce Nilles, Earthjustice, (415) 627-6700


Dr. David Pepper, Medical Alliance for Healthy Air, Fresno (559) 459-5705


Kevin Hall, Sierra Club, Fresno (559) 227-6421


John Walke, NRDC, Washington, DC (202) 289-6868

A coalition of medical and environmental groups filed suit today against the US Environmental Protection Agency in the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco for exempting an entire California industry, agriculture, from clean air regulations.

On December 7, 2001, in direct violation of the Clean Air Act, the EPA approved 34 California air district programs that exempt giant farms from the requirement to obtain air pollution permits. Giant farms are the San Joaquin Valley’s largest source of air pollution, putting out more smog and soot than any other source, including cars, trucks, oil refineries, or power plants. The suit was filed by Earthjustice on behalf of the Fresno-based Medical Alliance for Healthy Air, the Sierra Club, and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Big Ag Lobby Wins Unlawful and Unfair Exemption from Clean Air Act

Since passage of the Clean Air Act more than 30 years ago, the Central Valley’s giant farms have repeatedly lobbied local, state, and federal officials and won exemptions from important public health protections that apply to other industries. The results are disturbing. In the agriculture-dominated San Joaquin Valley, pollution levels are now higher than in Los Angeles. Farm equipment and animal lot waste are the two largest sources of air pollution in the valley.

EPA’s approval of the exemption for agriculture means that giant diesel engines used on farms to run irrigation pumps can continue to pollute without any controls. The same engines anywhere else in the state, such as on oil production fields, are required to reduce their pollution. EPA’s action also exempts giant dairy, poultry, and livestock factory farms from all clean air regulations, though they produce the most air pollution of any industry in the San Joaquin Valley.

EPA’s special deal for agriculture has particularly grave consequences in San Joaquin Valley. Since passage of the 1990 Clean Air Act, the San Joaquin Valley has never had a federally approved plan to fix its PM-10 (particulate matter/soot) problem. On December 31, 2001, the valley missed it second consecutive deadline for attaining the PM-10 standard. In 2001, the San Joaquin Valley violated the 8-hour ozone standard on more than 101 days, overtaking Los Angeles’s long-held title as dirtiest air in the nation. While Los Angeles has made notable progress in improving air quality, powerful industrial interests, including agriculture, have stymied any progress in the valley.

“EPA’s action is patently illegal and patently unfair to every other sector that is working to clean up the air,” said Bruce Nilles, attorney for Earthjustice who represents the coalition. “Congress did not authorize EPA to give breaks to one industry at the expense of everyone else in the Valley. Even your grandma must get her car smog checked. This lawsuit is about fairness.”

“We have a public health crisis in the San Joaquin Valley,” said Dr. David Pepper of the Medical Alliance for Healthy Air. “Living in the valley is like smoking a packet of cigarettes a day. EPA is playing favorites and the only winners are the corporate farms. The rest of us are paying with our health and higher medical bills.”

Kevin Hall, with the Tehipite Chapter of the Sierra Club, noted, “Over the past twelve months we have sued EPA and they have taken some initial steps to turn around years of neglect. Now the neglect is back. EPA is well aware that a large corporate poultry or dairy facility can emit as much pollution as a factory. These factory farms must be part of the solution.”

John Walke, with the Natural Resources Defense Council noted, “EPA knows that air pollution from corporate agriculture harms public health, and they have already prevailed in clean air enforcement cases against corporate farms. If EPA won’t uphold the clean air laws that protect public health, citizens will.”

Study Links Asthma to Air Pollution

The suit comes less than a week after the release of a University of Southern California study concluding that dangerous air pollution levels found throughout the Central Valley, Los Angeles, and the Bay Area actually cause asthma in children.

Asthma is now the leading cause of hospital admissions of young children in California. More than ten percent of all Central Valley residents suffer from the disease, including 7,000 children in the Fresno School District. Everyone pays higher health insurance premiums and taxes because of California’s persistent air pollution problems. For example, each emergency room visit for a child suffering from a severe asthma attack costs an average of $6,300; and the statewide costs of asthma-related hospitalizations total about $350 million annually, with nearly a third of that bill paid by state Medi-Cal program.

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