A federal appeals court ruled today that the Environmental Protection Agency’s October 2001 waiver of stronger clean air protections in parts of California violates the Clean Air Act. In a suit brought by Earthjustice on behalf of the Sierra Club, the Court ruled that EPA illegally let Imperial County blame its dirty air on Mexico rather than adopting stronger anti-pollution measures on the U.S. side of the border. Earthjustice had argued that the EPA waiver deprived residents of El Centro, Calexico, Brawley, and other parts of Imperial County of badly needed protection from unhealthful amounts of airborne particulates, a form of air pollution linked to early deaths and other serious health effects.
The Court further ordered EPA to reclassify Imperial Valley to “serious” for particulate pollution, a step that will trigger stronger anti-pollution requirements for industry, agriculture, and other pollution sources. The decision was issued by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco.
“This decision is a great victory for public health,” said Earthjustice attorney David Baron. “Imperial County residents suffer the health effects of profoundly dirty air, and instead of dealing with the problem, EPA responded by waiving anti-pollution rules. Now people will have the clean air protection the law requires.”
EPA had justified its action by claiming that Imperial Valley would meet federal air quality standards if it weren’t for air pollution coming from Mexico. But the Court found that EPA failed to support that claim. The Court noted that violations of clean air standards often occurred miles north of the border, even on days when winds were not blowing from Mexico.
“Pointing fingers at Mexico doesn’t reduce the substantial amounts of particulate pollution generated within Imperial County,” said Edie Harmon, a Sierra Club activist in Imperial County. “Much more needs to be done to control pollution on the U.S. side of the border.”
Scientific studies link airborne particulates to tens of thousands of premature deaths across the nation, as well as to reduced lung function and aggravation of lung disease. Airborne particulates consist of soot, soil, dust, metals, and other particles emitted by industrial facilities, agriculture operations, mines, motor vehicles, and other sources.
The Imperial Valley consistently violates federal health standards for airborne particulates, sometimes by wide margins. The region has one of the highest childhood asthma rates in the state, and its death rate from respiratory diseases is more than double that of California as a whole, according to the state’s Department of Health Services.
The Clean Air Act generally required that regions conform to federal particulate standards by 1994, and reclassify – or bump up –areas that missed that deadline to a more serious air pollution category. Reclassified areas must adopt stronger pollution controls for industry, agriculture, and other sources. Imperial Valley missed the 1994 deadline. After EPA failed for six years to bump-up the area, Earthjustice sued on behalf of the Sierra Club to require the EPA to act. EPA responded by waiving the bump-up requirement, triggering the Earthjustice lawsuit decided today.
Imperial County does not have an EPA-approved plan to address particulate pollution on the US side of the border, even though one was due ten years ago.
“EPA has allowed Imperial Valley residents to breathe polluted air for a decade longer than necessary,” said Baron. “Today’s decision will force the region to take the action needed to protect the lungs of its residents.”