Fresno/San Francisco, CA
Earthjustice filed a lawsuit this morning against the US Environmental Protection Agency in San Francisco on behalf of Latino Issues Forum, Medical Advocates for Healthy Air, and the Sierra Club in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals challenging the Environmental Protection Agency’s approval of a plan to control particulate matter pollution, or PM, in the San Joaquin Valley. The plan fails to meet even the most basic requirements established by the Clean Air Act.
The plan is the first ever to be approved for the Valley by EPA, yet it is too weak to effectively reduce PM air pollution, a deadly form of air pollution that kills more than 1,200 Valley residents each year. PM in the Central Valley consists of fine particles of diesel exhaust, dust, soot, animal waste, smoke, and other toxic chemicals.
“This plan is a huge disappointment because it will not clean up our air,” said Rey León, policy analyst with the Fresno regional office of Latino Issues Forum. “Particulate matter is a killer and it’s especially hard on rural communities. Latinos and communities of color often live and work in the areas facing the worst particulate air pollution. A real PM plan would significantly reduce the asthma rates among our children in the valley.”
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 required to impose sanctions on the Valley and develop a federally enforceable plan to regulate particulate matter pollution by December 17, 1993.
In October 2002, these same groups, represented by Earthjustice, sued the EPA for its failure to address this crisis. As a result, EPA was required by court order to finalize an aggressive federal plan by August 2004 to control particulate matter pollution in the Valley if the region did not first produce an approvable local plan. That plan must include all “best available control measures,” the highest standard available under the Clean Air Act.
“The Clean Air Act requires the Valley to implement one of the strongest plans in the nation because particulate pollution in the Valley is among the worst in the nation,” said Susan Britton, an attorney with Earthjustice who is representing the coalition. “For the past decade, the San Joaquin Valley Air District came up with ineffectual, loophole-ridden plans the EPA could not approve. This plan is no different, but EPA has approved it to avoid stepping in with a federal plan. Residents of the San Joaquin Valley deserve better protection from air pollution; the regional air district or the EPA have dropped the ball again.”
Among the problems with the plan:
- Because San Joaquin Valley is classified as a “serious” nonattainment area for PM-10 pollution, it was required to meet the national health based standard by 2001. (Every other serious PM nonattainment area that missed the 2001 attainment date – Clark County, Nevada; Coachella Valley, California; Maricopa County, Arizona; and the South Coast/Los Angeles – applied for and received a one-time 5-year attainment deadline extension to attain by December 31, 2006.) For the first time, however, EPA is approving a plan for the San Joaquin Valley that delays the deadline for attainment to 2010. EPA’s interpretation of the Clean Air Act would allow endless extensions of the attainment deadline for up to ten-year periods after each finding of nonattainment.
- EPA calculates that up to 92% of the pollution reductions relied upon in the plan rely on “commitments” or promises to develop cleanup measures, instead of measures that have been adopted.
- The proposed program to regulate agriculture is riddled with exemptions, loopholes, and overly optimistic predictions of success. Agriculture is responsible for more than half of the directly-emitted particulate matter in the San Joaquin Valley.
- The plan oversimplifies the science of air pollution by ignoring important precursors to PM, including ammonia, effectively exempting factory farms. The composition of PM varies by location. In certain southern parts of the Central Valley, ammonia from dairies is the most important precursor to PM, yet it goes unregulated by the plan. EPA claims that there is simply too much ammonia to control. But giving up does not satisfy the Clean Air Act. The law requires all significant PM precursors to be controlled, and there is no question that ammonia is a significant precursor.
- The plan does not contain the required 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 until the Valley meets the national health based standard. Instead, the plan uses questionable accounting methods to allow for fewer reductions in later years, resulting in more pollution than would result from the required 5 percent annual reductions.
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 toxic chemicals. 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.
“The EPA is adding insult to injury by approving this plan,” said Kevin Hall, a lifelong Valley resident and Sierra Club volunteer. “Once again we’re being forced into the courts because the agency refuses to obey the law and do its job. The major polluters, particularly big ag and oil, are running the show. The lobbyists control the Valley air district and it seems, the EPA.”
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. It’s time for a real plan to deal with this serious public health issue.”