Health, Environmental Groups Enforce the Clean Air Act to Protect Americans from Smog

EPA Science Advisor: "Willful ignorance triumphed over sound science" in setting standards


David Baron, Earthjustice, (202) 667-4500

Health and environmental advocates are filing suit today challenging the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s refusal to adopt stronger ozone standards urged by its own scientists.

The public interest law firm Earthjustice is filing the lawsuit on behalf of the American Lung Association, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Environmental Defense Fund, National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), and Appalachian Mountain Club over the standards EPA adopted in March. The standards for ozone pollution — commonly known as smog — are not only far weaker than what was unanimously recommended by EPA science advisors, but also leave public health and the environment at great risk, the groups contend.

“EPA officials ignored the advice of their own scientists when they chose these deficient standards, but they can’t ignore the law,” said Earthjustice attorney David Baron, who filed today’s lawsuit. “The Clean Air Act requires EPA to adopt standards strong enough to protect our lungs and our environment. We’re fighting to make sure that happens. Stronger standards could save thousands of lives, by some estimates.”

Today’s lawsuit is being filed as EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson comes under fire for bowing to White House pressure to reject stronger smog standards. Johnson was grilled last week by members of the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform who asked why he rejected the advice of scientists in setting the standard. He testified beside the head of EPA’s Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, Dr. Rogene Henderson, who critiqued Johnson’s actions, telling committee members: “Policymakers wandered into science and they did not do it well,” adding, “willful ignorance triumphed over sound science.”

Henderson’s committee had recommended that the agency set the health standard at between 60 and 70 parts-per-billion. Instead, Johnson and the EPA set the standard at 75 parts-per-billion, leaving asthmatics, young children, the elderly and others at greater risk for lung and heart disease than the standard recommended by health experts, the groups contend.

“By enforcing the nation’s clean air laws, we can lift the veil of dangerous smog over our cities and prevent its harmful reach across America to our grand forests and croplands,” said Vickie Patton, Environmental Defense Fund Deputy General Counsel.

Smog is linked to premature deaths, thousands of emergency room visits, and tens of thousands of asthma attacks each year. Ozone is especially dangerous to small children and senior citizens, who are often warned to stay indoors on polluted days.

“Ozone pollution threatens breathing for millions of Americans, especially children, the elderly and people with lung disease including asthma,” explained Bernadette Toomey, President and CEO of the American Lung Association. “The EPA’s decision to disregard the overwhelming evidence and the advice of respected experts is a decision that we could not allow to go unchallenged.”

The lawsuit also challenges EPA’s refusal to adopt a separate standard urged by its science advisers and the National Park Service to protect the environment and wildlife in national parks from smog impacts. Ozone pollution can cause substantial damage to trees and plants, stunting their growth, making them much more susceptible to disease, and leading to the yellowing or mottling of leaves. The science advisors unanimously called for a special growing season standard to protect forests and crops from ozone damage, and the Park Service strongly agreed, but EPA — on direct orders from the White House — rejected their advice.

“Visitors to national parks throughout the country can see ugly scars on plants and trees caused by ozone pollution,” said Mark Wenzler, director of Clean Air and Climate Programs at National Parks Conservation Association. “The Administration had an opportunity to heal some of this damage, but instead followed a familiar pattern of siding with big polluters over clean air in our parks.”

The standards adopted by EPA also ignored the more than 60,000 signatures gathered by Earthjustice as part of the group’s Adopt the Sky campaign which called upon Johnson to set the standard at no greater than 60 parts-per-billion.

“Smoking gun documents disclose that White House political science trumped sound science and the law in setting EPA’s ozone standard,” said John Walke, Clean Air Director with NRDC. “We must now turn to the courts to enforce the law that EPA and the President refused to uphold.”

The lawsuit was filed today in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.  

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