Environmental and community groups have learned that the Environmental Protection Agency is proposing to officially approve a plan by the San Joaquin Valley regional air district to control particulate matter (PM) air pollution. Particulate matter air pollution in the Central Valley consists of fine particles of dust, soot, animal waste, diesel exhaust, smoke, and other fumes. Unfortunately, the proposed plan is too weak to effectively reduce PM pollution, the most deadly form of air pollution that kills more than 1,200 Valley residents each year. If the proposal is finalized, the citizen coalition will challenge EPA’s approval of the plan in federal court.
Among the problems with the plan:
- The valley was supposed to have a federally-approved plan in place nearly a decade ago that would meet the national health-based standard for PM by 2001. Instead, the plan does not estimate meeting the national standard until 2010 and fails to demonstrate it can even meet that deadline.
- The proposed program to regulate agriculture is riddled with exemptions, loopholes, and overly optimistic predictions of success. Furthermore, the bulk of the agricultural program, the actual proposed rules, are not even included in the plan, they are deferred to an agribusiness-EPA developed “Handbook.” This handbook will not be enforceable or subject to the rulemaking process.
- The plan does not contain any controls for ammonia, a major precursor to particulate matter, effectively exempting factory farms.
- The plan is supposed to include fallback measures if the valley is not making progress toward cleaning the air by 2005. Given the plan’s inadequacies and the lack of such fallback measures, valley residents will be back to square one in 2005.
- The Clean Air Act requires the plan to reduce particulate matter pollution by five percent annually. Instead, the plan fudges these calculations to allow for increased emissions in later years.
“For the past decade, the San Joaquin Valley air district came up with ineffectual, loophole-ridden plans the EPA could not approve,” said Anne Harper, an attorney with Earthjustice who is representing the coalition. “The EPA is now bound by a court order to take over the planning process if the region fails to produce an adequate plan. Instead, the EPA punted and approved a fundamentally flawed plan. If EPA finalizes its approval of this plan, we will be headed back to court.”
A Region Lacking Effective Regulators
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. 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, over a decade later, the valley still does not have a federally approved plan in place to control this deadly pollutant.
In October 2002, a citizen coalition sued the EPA for its failure to address this 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.
If the region did not produce an approvable plan, the settlement required EPA to step in and develop a federal plan to clean up PM pollution in the San Joaquin Valley by July 31, 2004. The agreement mandates that the region must implement the “best available control measures,” the highest standard available under the Clean Air Act.
Particulate Matter – A Public Health Crisis
In the Central Valley, particulate matter pollution consists of fine particles such as dust, soot, animal waste, diesel exhaust, smoke, and other fumes. EPA has long recognized that particulate matter presents a serious public health hazard, causing premature death and the aggravation of respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. The effects of particulate matter pollution are most severe among children, the elderly, asthmatics, and individuals with respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. 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.
“Particulate matter is especially hard on rural communities, Latinos, and communities of color who often lack access to health care while they live and/or work in the areas most prone to contaminants like pesticides,” said Rey León of the Fresno office of Latino Issues Forum. “All of our children’s health is at stake. Too many people end up in the emergency room while children are forced to stay indoors. This plan is not the solution for our valley.”
“More than 1,200 valley residents are dying every year from particulate matter 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. EPA has dropped the ball again.”
Representing the Medical Advocates for Healthy Air, Dr. David Pepper agreed, “We see all forms of respiratory disease in the valley increase during the particulate season and the science clearly links PM with increased disease and premature death. We need a real plan to deal with this serious public health issue.”