A federal appeals court today held that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) violated the Clean Air Act by letting the Washington area delay adoption of stronger anti-smog measures. The court threw out EPA’s 2003 approval of regional smog control plans that merely promised to adopt overdue pollution controls in the future. The decision could lead to the starting of clocks for imposition of federal pollution controls and sanctions on the area unless all required measures are promptly adopted.
The suit was brought by Earthjustice on behalf of the Sierra Club. It is the third time in two years that a federal court has ruled that EPA has illegally delayed clean air requirements for the Washington area.
“This is a big victory for everyone who breathes the air in this community,” said Earthjustice attorney David Baron. “Just by being outside, Washington area residents are exposed to ozone at levels that can cause serious health problems, especially for children, senior citizens, and asthmatics. We hope EPA will now get the message and start protecting our lungs rather than making excuses for delay.”
At issue is the Washington area’s continued violation of federal health standards for ozone (smog), a severe lung irritant that is particularly dangerous to children, persons with asthma, and senior citizens. Elevated ozone levels have been linked to increased hospital and emergency room visits, and symptoms such as chest pain, nausea, and pulmonary congestion.
In the Spring of 2003, EPA “conditionally” approved regional air pollution plans that a federal Court ruled inadequate in 2002. The plans were completely missing a variety of anti-smog measures required by the Clean Air Act, including stronger pollution limits for factories, annual emissions cuts, and steps to offset growth in car and truck exhaust. EPA’s conditional approval let the District, Maryland, and Virginia put off the adoption of these measures. Earthjustice filed suit, contending that EPA’s action violated the Clean Air Act. In today’s decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. circuit agreed.
“We’re pleased the Court rejected EPA’s delaying tactic,” said Sierra Club spokesperson Melanie Mayock. “We need an effective, enforceable plan to get the necessary pollution reductions for healthy air, and we need it now. The residents of Metropolitan Washington have waited too long to breathe healthy air because of delays from EPA.”
In the summer of 2002 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. The situation was even worse when measured against EPA’s new, more protective 8-hour ozone standard, which was exceeded on 36 days in 2002 – including two “code purple” days when the air was deemed “very unhealthy.”
Sierra Club, Earthjustice, and other environmental groups have criticized a draft clean air plan released in December by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments for offering too little in the way in additional controls on motor vehicle exhaust, and further delaying required anti-smog rules.
As a result of the earlier Earthjustice suits on behalf of Sierra Club, the Washington region was reclassified from “serious” to “severe” for ozone in early 2003, triggering requirements for stronger pollution controls. Unfortunately, the more protective measures required by the law have still not been adopted,” said Baron. “We hope today’s court decision will put an end to further delays.”