Communities get EPA to rein in cities’ smog pollution

EPA must do more as it reconsiders smog standards


Erin Fitzgerald, Earthjustice Press Secretary,

Following a lawsuit from advocates represented by Earthjustice, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced this month it will call on certain metropolitan areas with dire smog pollution to clean up their dirty air. Cities at issue include Baltimore, Maryland; Chicago, Illinois; Cleveland, Ohio; Dallas, San Antonio, and Houston, Texas; Denver, Colorado; Phoenix, Arizona; Salt Lake City, Utah; and Washington, D.C.

Under the Clean Air Act, EPA was charged to determine by February, or, for San Antonio, March, 2022 whether these cities cleaned up their ground-level ozone (a major component of smog) to meet the 2015 ozone standard. They didn’t, and EPA failed to force these states and cities to implement ways to improve, so groups sued in June. In challenging EPA’s failure to make the determinations under the 2015 standard, Earthjustice sued on behalf of the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments, Downwinders at Risk, HEAL Utah, and Sierra Club.

“We are pleased EPA will require states to improve smog pollution. The Clean Air Act requires EPA to ensure that states are meeting their obligations to clean up their air,” said Marvin Brown, Earthjustice attorney. “But community advocates have had to constantly push and sue EPA, just to get the agency to do the bare minimum. This is just one good step in the fight for clean air. As Biden’s EPA prepares to update air pollution rules, we urge officials to follow the science and make them truly protective. Communities all over the country need robust protections from smog immediately.”

Under former President Trump, EPA issued a flawed rule in late December 2020, leaving the outdated 2015 standards in place. Those standards were not protective of public health or the environment. Earthjustice sued over what advocates dubbed a Do Nothing air pollution rule. Biden’s EPA decided to reconsider the deeply flawed 2020 decision and has said it intends to issue a proposal for the standards in spring 2023. The Clean Air Act requires EPA to establish nationwide baseline standards for air quality for pollutants like particulate matter, or soot, and ozone smog. 

While ozone is good as a protective layer in the stratosphere, ground-level ozone creates smog, which cause asthma attacks and other respiratory problems. It also harms the cardiovascular system and may cause early death. Toxic ozone stems from harmful chemicals prevalent in oil, gas, and petrochemical development, as well as the burning of fossil fuels like gasoline, coal, and fracked gas. 

Recent science has confirmed and expanded on the harmful effects of soot and ozone smog, and independent scientific experts have repeatedly told EPA that its current standards must be strengthened. The steps that states take to come into attainment with existing, under-protective standards, will help states come into attainment with more protective standards.

According to the American Lung Association’s 2021 State of the Air report, more than 123 million people live in counties that have dangerous levels of smog — many of which are disproportionately lower-income areas and communities of color. When including soot pollution, people of color are over three times more likely to be breathing polluted air.

Quotes from our clients:

“This year has been the worst year for Dallas-Fort Worth in a decade. We’re in our fourth decade of breathing illegal levels of smog,” said Evelyn Mayo from Downwinders at Risk, a Texas organization. “While we’re proud to have been part of the effort to compel these new EPA actions, as long as we have the same state government in Austin, we don’t believe anything short of a complete EPA takeover of Texas regulatory duties will result in Dallas-Fort Worth breathing legal air.”

“People around the country don’t need to see their community on a list from EPA to know they’re experiencing harmful levels of smog pollution that are limiting their ability to safely enjoy their time outdoors,” said Sierra Club Senior Attorney Josh Berman. “We’re pleased to see EPA take this important step to implement the Clean Air Act’s requirements, and help protect people in communities across the country from the dangerous health impacts of ozone.”

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