San Francisco, CA
Public health, community, and conservation groups filed suit in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over the Agency’s decision to relieve the notoriously polluted region from further obligations to address dust pollution under the federal Clean Air Act.
At issue is an October 2006 final rule officially removing the San Joaquin Valley’s designation as an area that violates federal standards for coarse particulate matter (PM-10). With this decision, EPA waived remaining obligations of the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District to continue its fight against PM-10. According to the California Air Resources Board, particulate matter is the most deadly air pollutant, estimated to kill more than 1200 valley residents each year.
“The air is still not clean. More than half of Latinos in the San Joaquin Valley report that they suffer from respiratory problems,” (1) said Nora Vargas of the Latino Issues Forum. “Latino families suffer disproportional health and economic impacts from air pollution as asthma is the leading cause of absenteeism from school or work due to chronic conditions. Air quality affects everyone, every resident of the valley deserves clean air.” (2)
Even though air quality monitors in the valley show that the federal standards are not being met, EPA and the local air district claim that these recurring violations are natural and need not be addressed through further controls.
“This is a classic case of trying to sweep the dust under the rug,” said Paul Cort of Earthjustice who is representing the coalition against EPA. “The air is not clean and the agencies have not done their job to protect public health. EPA’s decision is factually and legally flawed and must be overturned.”
“The San Joaquin Valley is a region where industry special interests hold sway,” said Kevin Hall of the Fresno Sierra Club. “As we said at the time of the finding, it was either a miracle or they were lying. As more data came in, we became convinced it was the latter.”
“EPA regulators had to write new rules with special loopholes just so they could ignore the valley’s PM-10 pollution,” said Kevin Hamilton a respiratory therapist and representative of Medical Advocates for Healthy Air. “Listening to the coughing and wheezing of my patients I wonder how their lungs and hearts can get in on the deal. Come on EPA, we’re not stupid here.”
Strategy of Avoidance
For nearly a decade, community groups have been going to court to make sure the Clean Air Act is fully enforced in the San Joaquin Valley. These citizen’s legal actions have successfully ended illegal exemptions (agriculture, oil refineries) and forced new clean air rules (for industrial polluters and wood burning).
One of the cases clean air advocates won was a court order that set a deadline for EPA to adopt missing measures for addressing the PM-10 problem in the valley. Rather than establish these required measures, EPA instead chose to manipulate data from air monitoring stations to determine the valley had attained the national PM-10 standards.
The Dangers of Particulate Matter
Sources of particulate matter pollution include almost any activity that generates dust, soot or smoke. EPA has long recognized that exposure to elevated ambient air concentrations of particulate matter less than 10 microns in diameter (referred to as PM-10) can cause impairment of lung function, impacts on respiratory defense mechanisms, aggravation of respiratory and cardiovascular disease, and premature mortality.
EPA adopted national ambient air quality standards for PM-10 in 1987 and directed all areas not meeting these standards to adopt state plans including specific control measures to regulate sources of PM-10.
The San Joaquin Valley in central California continues to be one of the most PM-polluted regions in the country.
Read the Petition for Review (PDF)
(1) Public Policy Institute of California
(2) American Lung Association of CA