Nation's Capital Given "Severe" Label for Ozone Pollution

DC region faces stronger anti-pollution measures to protect health


Suzanne Carrier



The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency today reclassified the Washington region to “severe” for ozone pollution, a step that will trigger stronger pollution controls for industries and motor vehicles. The redesignation was prompted by a federal court order in a lawsuit brought by Earthjustice on behalf of the Sierra Club. The residents of DC as well as those of downwind cities such as New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore suffer significant health threats due to smog pollution generated in the capital region. New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore are already designated severe for smog pollution and held to the stronger pollution control requirements that DC had avoided until today’s announcement.

“This action will lead to cleaner, healthier air for people not only in the Washington region, but also in downwind cities,” said Earthjustice attorney David Baron. “The stronger pollution controls required by this action are badly needed to reduce the large number of ‘code red’ days we suffer each summer.”

Ten other areas have been designated by EPA as being in severe nonattainment of federal ozone standards including Houston, Sacramento, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. Los Angeles’ smog problem is designated extreme by the agency. Areas in these categories, which now include metro Washington, must implement stronger pollution controls to bring their air quality in line with national standards. The court order also requires EPA to decide by next April whether to formally disapprove the DC region’s previous clean air plans, a move that would trigger legal requirements to redirect transportation spending from new roads to better mass transit and other projects that help to reduce pollution.

“More pollution controls are desperately needed in the Washington region,” said Dr. Ronald Karpick, a Falls Church pulmonary physician. “Poor air quality means more children develop asthma and people with asthma have more attacks. This all leads to poorer quality of life, higher medical expenses, and even premature deaths.”

Ozone is a severe lung irritant that damages lung tissue and reduces lung function, ultimately inducing symptoms such as chest pain, nausea, and pulmonary congestion. Ozone at levels routinely experienced in the capital region is particularly detrimental to at-risk individuals like the elderly, children, and persons with respiratory problems. During a typical smoggy summer in metro DC, breathing difficulties send more than 2,400 people to the emergency room and cause 130,000 asthma attacks. Last summer the Washington region suffered from the worst ozone pollution in more than a decade. There were nine “code red” days, and another 19 “code orange” days when children were warned to limit outdoor play.

DC’s non-attainment areas include the District of Columbia, Calvert, Charles, Frederick, Montgomery, and Prince George’s counties in Maryland; and Alexandria, Arlington, Fairfax, Falls Church, Loudoun, Manassas, Manassas Park, Prince William, and Stafford counties in Virginia.

To bring these areas back into compliance with the law, Sierra Club urges EPA to adopt a comprehensive clean air plan that makes public transit affordable, convenient, and dependable, and that promotes smart growth rather than suburban sprawl.

“Local officials should adopt smart growth policies, including clustering new development near transit and making our communities walkable and bikeable, to fight air pollution and help everyone breathe easier,” said Sierra Club spokesperson Melanie Mayock.

The redesignation notice was printed in the Federal Register today.

In a previous Earthjustice lawsuit, a federal appeals court last July ruled that state and local plans to address the ozone problem were inadequate. When EPA failed to require corrective action, Earthjustice filed the suit that led to today’s reclassification.

Although welcoming the reclassification action, Earthjustice decried another portion of today’s EPA action that allows state and local governments more than a year to develop new clean air plans for the region. “This is not a time for more footdragging,” said Baron. “These plans were due more than eight years ago. Baron also faulted EPA for allowing the region to delay annual cuts in ozone-forming emissions.


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