A broad coalition of health, conservation, environmental organizations and state governments is returning to federal court to compel the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to revise the national ambient air quality standards for fine particulate matter, more commonly known as soot.
In today’s legal action, the American Lung Association, Environmental Defense Fund, and National Parks Conservation Association, represented by the public interest law firm Earthjustice, asked the District of Columbia Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals to set a deadline for the EPA to respond to the Court’s decision from February 2009, which found that the standards adopted by the EPA in 2006 failed to protect public health and welfare.
To date, the EPA has not responded to that ruling by adopting the required standards. The groups have returned to the same court today, seeking an order requiring the EPA to adopt the long-overdue air pollution regulations by no later than September 15, 2012. A group of ten states also filed a companion petition with the court today.
"It’s unfortunate that we need to seek a court order to force the EPA to strengthen these critical air quality standards," said David Baron, attorney for Earthjustice. "EPA’s delay is inexcusable when people’s lives are at stake."
Airborne particulate matter is comprised of tiny particles of smoke, soot, metals and other chemical compounds emitted from sources like power plants, factories, and diesel trucks. Scientific research shows that these microscopic particles can penetrate deep into lungs, making them one of the most toxic forms of air pollution. The EPA’s own studies show that each year of delay in limiting particulate matter with tighter national standards has resulted in thousands of avoidable deaths, along with increased cases of respiratory and heart diseases.
"Particulate matter can be deadly," said Janice Nolen, Assistant Vice President of National Policy and Advocacy for the American Lung Association. "Research tells us that fine particles may be responsible for tens of thousands of premature deaths nationwide every year. Particulate matter is also linked to the aggravation of respiratory illnesses, such as asthma, bronchitis, and chronic obstructive lung disease (COPD), and to heart disease."
The federal Clean Air Act requires EPA to review the adequacy of national ambient air quality standards every five years, using the best health and science data available. In 2006, EPA ignored its independent science advisors’ recommendations for stronger particulate matter protections and instead left in place the annual standard adopted in 1997. Since then, the EPA has failed to revisit the air quality standards as required by the 2009 court ruling. Meanwhile, the EPA has also missed another five-year review deadline. That missed deadline prompted groups in October to send EPA a 60-day notice of intent to sue.
"The EPA must act to protect the public from this well-documented health hazard," said Peter Zalzal, an attorney with Environmental Defense Fund. "Strengthening these important air quality protections will have far-reaching benefits and will help to protect vulnerable populations, including the young, the elderly, and those already suffering from respiratory conditions."
"The impact of soot goes well beyond the crisis in human health," said Mark Wenzler, Director of Clean Air and Climate Programs for the National Parks Conservation Association. "The pollution affects our forests, our soil, our water, and the very clarity of the air around us. The EPA knows of these adverse effects and is required to mitigate them."
In conjunction with today’s legal filings, the American Lung Association, Earthjustice and the Clean Air Task Force released a new report titled Sick of Soot: How the EPA Can Save Lives by Clean Up Fine Particle Air Pollution, detailing the health damage caused by particulate matter pollution. According to the study, tighter standards for soot could save more than 35,000 lives every year.