Settlement Reached on Air Pollution Lawsuit in California's San Joaquin Valley

EPA agrees to end its years of neglect.


Bruce Nilles, Earthjustice (415) 627-6700


Enrique Gallardo, LIF (415) 547-7550


Brent Newell, CRPE, Delano (661) 720-9140


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


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

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has agreed to settle a lawsuit with community, medical, and environmental groups concerning the agency’s failure to oversee progress towards clean air in the San Joaquin Valley. The settlement requires EPA to take final action on the Valley’s plan to fix its particulate matter (“PM-10”) problem and to act on six local rules, four of which offer an unlawful exemption for the oil industry. The settlement enables EPA to avoid further legal action, but places EPA under court supervision to fulfill the terms of the settlement. The lawsuit was filed by Earthjustice on behalf of the Fresno-based Medical Alliance for Healthy Air, the Sierra Club, Latino Issues Forum, and the Center on Race, Poverty, and the Environment.

On November 1, 2001, this coalition of medical, community, and environmental groups sued EPA, citing seven instances where EPA was required to approve or disapprove revisions to the Valley’s clean air plan proposed by the local Air District. These groups alleged that EPA action was long overdue, with missed deadlines ranging from 1994 to 1999.

The revisions include the Air District’s plan to attain the national PM-10 standard, as well as specific rules limiting emissions of ozone and particulate matter from internal combustion engines, stationary gas turbines, boilers, generators, and residential wood burning.

If EPA had acted on schedule for these seven revisions, numerous additional control measures would currently be in effect in the Valley. Plaintiffs believe EPA must disapprove the proposed revisions concerning the PM-10 plan and several of the specific rules because they do not meet federal law requirements. With the disapproval of these revisions, the Air District must develop more stringent new measures to submit for EPA approval or face serious sanctions. EPA’s failure to act resulted in leaving entire categories of air pollution sources in the Valley unregulated.

EPA’s lengthy period of neglect of air quality planning has particularly grave consequences in San Joaquin Valley, whose residents suffer from high rates of respiratory diseases, while big agricultural interests and the oil industry have repeatedly stymied the local Air District from making progress. Since passage of the 1990 Clean Air Act, the San Joaquin Valley has never had a federally approved plan to fix its PM-10 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, earning Los Angeles’s long-held position of dirtiest air nationwide. But Los Angeles has made notable progress in improving air quality, while the Valley has made none.

Federal clean air laws provide a framework to protect the public from breathing dirty air. EPA establishes national air quality standards. States prepare and submit to EPA plans to achieve the national standards by a designated deadline (areas with worse pollution are given more time), and EPA either approves or disapproves the states’ plans. Approval allows the plan to become enforceable by EPA, states, and citizens. If EPA rejects all or part of a state’s or an individual air district’s plan, it imposes sanctions, such as loss of federal highway monies, and a new plan must be prepared. If EPA fails to act on a plan, the entire structure to achieve clean air fails.

The settlement, if approved by the Court, will bind EPA to take final action on all seven items by no later than August 23, 2002. The settlement was lodged with the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California in San Francisco and requires Court approval before it becomes final.

Bruce Nilles, an attorney with Earthjustice who represents the coalition said, “We are pleased with this settlement because it is an important step to ensure that another generation of Valley residents will not be forced to breathe life-threatening pollution levels.” Nilles cautioned, “but EPA’s prolonged neglect has allowed the Valley’s air quality to deteriorate to unhealthy levels, so it will take years for the harm to be undone.”

“Breathing in the San Joaquin Valley continues to be hazardous to your health,” said Dr. David Pepper of the Medical Alliance for Healthy Air. “Each year, we see more children and elderly people in the emergency room because of air pollution. It’s a sad situation that can be solved if the controlling agencies can just get a political backbone. Today, EPA is taking an important first step in the right direction.”

Kevin Hall, with the Tehipite Chapter of the Sierra Club, noted, “This is a positive move by EPA. The real test, however, is whether EPA will now take other pending and future obligations seriously, or whether we will be compelled to sue them again and again.”

Brent Newell, attorney for the Center on Race, Poverty, and the Environment, observed, “Something is fundamentally broken when government agencies abdicate their duties and citizens must sue to ensure enforcement of clean air laws. This settlement is a sign that we might see the federal government start taking a more active approach in protecting the public’s health.”

Leo Avila, president of the board of Latino Issues Forum, remarked, “This is the beginning of a long process. We must continue our vigilance over the government to make sure it continues making progress towards cleaning our dirty air.”

View the consent decree below.

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