San Francisco, CA
Community, environmental, and medical groups and the Environmental Protection Agency lodged a proposed consent decree with the Northern District Court of California today resolving an October 2002 suit challenging EPA’s failure to address the San Joaquin Valley’s air pollution crisis. Plaintiffs agreed to settle the claim in exchange for a commitment by EPA, subject to Court Order, to enact an aggressive federal plan to control particulate matter pollution in the Valley. Particulate matter is the most deadly form of air pollution. The San Joaquin Valley has exceeded public health standards for particulate matter since they came into effect in 1990.
The settlement will require EPA to step in and develop a plan to regulate particulate matter pollution in the San Joaquin Valley by July 31, 2004. Unless the regional air district comes up with a plan that the EPA can approve before then, the EPA will be required to take control of the process.
Citizen Enforcement of the Clean Air Act
The Clean Air Act requires local agencies to develop and implement plans to clean up the air. If the local agencies don’t do their job, EPA is required to step in and develop a federal plan for the region. If EPA then fails to take action, the Clean Air Act authorizes citizens to step in and sue to enforce the act. The lawsuit that brought about this settlement provides a textbook example of citizen enforcement litigation and why it is sometimes truly the last resort for getting agencies on track to cleaning up our air.
“For two decades, the San Joaquin Valley air district has come up with one plan after another; every one of them ineffectual and loophole-ridden, and EPA has never been unable to approve a single one,” said Deborah Reames, an attorney with Earthjustice who is representing the coalition. “It may be 11 years late, but finally, EPA will be bound by a Court Order to produce a plan to control particulate matter in the Valley by a date certain.”
Particulate matter pollution consists of fine particles such as dust, soot, smoke, and fumes. EPA has long recognized that particulate matter presents a serious public health hazard, causing premature mortality and the aggravation of respiratory and cardiovascular disease. The effects of particulate matter pollution are most severe among children, the elderly, asthmatics, and individuals with respiratory and cardiovascular disease. Medical Advocates for Healthy Air, the Sierra Club, and the Latino Issues Forum formed a coalition in 1999 dedicated to clearing the air in the San Joaquin Valley.
The settlement will end six months of litigation over EPA’s failure to regulate particulate matter pollution in the Valley, as required by the Clean Air Act. EPA was supposed to impose sanctions on the Valley and develop a federally enforceable plan to regulate particulate matter pollution by December 17, 1993, but today, a decade later, the Valley still does not have a plan in place to control this deadly pollutant. The federal plan mandated by the consent decree will require EPA to implement the “best available control measures.” This requirement is even more aggressive than the “reasonably available control measures” that were originally mandated by the December 17, 1993 deadline and demanded by the lawsuit.
“Particulate matter is especially hard on Latinos and communities of color who often lack access to regular medical visits,” said Rey Leon of the Fresno office of Latino Issue Forum. “Too many people end up in the emergency room and too many children are being told to stay indoors. This ruling is an important step to help clean up our air.”
“This victory gives our community hope. It’s unfortunate that citizen groups were forced into the courts to sue for clean air, but more than 1,300 Valley residents are dying every year from particulate pollution,” said Kevin Hall a lifelong Valley resident and Sierra Club volunteer. “This is not a scientific problem, this is a political problem. We know how to control this pollution; we just need the will to get the job done. A court mandate will help provide the backbone local and federal agencies seem to lack.”
Representing the Medical Advocates for Healthy Air, Dr. David Pepper agreed, “We see all forms of respiratory disease the Valley increase during the particulate season and the science clearly links PM with increased disease and earlier death. This is the first step, and a long overdue one, toward cleaning the air we breathe.”
The consent decree will be published in the Federal Register for public review. EPA will consider any comments received before the decree is made final, in accordance with Clean Air Act procedures.