Lawsuit Prompts EPA to Downgrade Air Quality in California Valley

SAN FRANCISCO, California, October 25, 2001 (ENS) - Under threat of litigation from medical, community and environmental groups, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has downgraded the air quality status of California's San Joaquin Valley from serious to severe. The change will require the region's environmental regulators to develop plans to reduce ozone pollution by 30 percent by 2005.

In May 2001, the American Lung Association released a report demonstrating that three of the four most ozone polluted cities in the nation are situated in the San Joaquin Valley. According to the report, breathing is more dangerous in Bakersfield, Fresno, and the Visalia-Tulare-Porterville area than any other place in the nation except Los Angeles.

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An electric substation near Fresno, California - a city with some of the worst air pollution in the nation (Photo by Roger Taylor, courtesy National Renewable Energy Laboratory)
Ozone pollution exacerbates respiratory disease and causes coughing, throat irritation, and lung damage, as well as damaging agricultural crops and other vegetation.

In July, a coalition of medical, community, and environmental groups announced their intent to sue the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for its failure to change the Valley's air quality to the dirtier severe designation.

On Tuesday, the EPA made that change, and ordered the San Joaquin Valley Air District to develop a pollution control plan by May 2002 that will reduce ozone pollution by 30 percent by 2005. The District asked the EPA for an extension of the deadline for a new pollution control plan until 2007, but their request was denied.

"With this decision, the EPA takes an important step to end its decade long neglect of the air quality problems in the San Joaquin Valley," said Bruce Nilles, attorney with Earthjustice who represents the coalition. "The EPA was required by law to take this action 17 months ago. Since that time, Valley families have been exposed unnecessarily to damaging levels of air pollution. The EPA must now address the other eight violations that are similarly overdue."

The coalition still plans to sue the EPA for eight other instances of environmental neglect in the Valley. The lawsuit will be brought by Earthjustice on behalf of the Fresno based Medical Alliance for Healthy Air, the Sierra Club, Latino Issues Forum, and the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment.

STANDARDS IGNORED, DEADLINES MISSED

The national one hour ozone standard is set at 120 parts per billion to protect public health. Regions that violate this standard more than three times over a three year period are designated to varying degrees as being in "non-attainment," depending on the severity of the violations.

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The San Joaquin Valley historically included large areas of desert, but agricultural, oil and urban development has displaced most of this habitat - and produced tons of air pollution (Photo courtesy U.S. Geological Survey)
The EPA designated the San Joaquin Valley as a serious non-attainment area for ozone in 1990 and gave the region 10 years to correct its ozone pollution problems. The ozone problem in the Valley worsened through the early 1990s, and the area missed its attainment deadline by a significant margin.

Federal law then required the EPA to downgrade the air quality designation by May 15, 2000, and to impose new pollution control measures. Two months later, community groups declared their intention to sue the EPA in order to protect public health.

Under the severe designation, new controls must be enacted. These new controls include:

"While most other areas in the country have shown at least modest improvement in controlling ozone pollution, San Joaquin Valley has made no noticeable progress in the past twenty years," said Dr. David Pepper of the Medical Alliance for Healthy Air. "Filtering of dirty air should happen at the source, not in Valley residents' lungs. Emergency rooms fill throughout the Valley on high ozone days: children and the elderly suffer disproportionately."

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The San Joaquin Valley contains three of the four most ozone polluted cities in the nation (Photo courtesy San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District)
"Other regions of the United States have balanced the need for clean air with economic development," added Kevin Hall, a Fresno native, and member of the local Sierra Club chapter. "Good solutions exist that we could implement if we had the political courage. Unfortunately, the scales in the Valley have repeatedly tipped in favor of unregulated pollution and against public health."

On October 9, 2001, plaintiffs Medical Alliance for Healthy Air, Sierra Club, Latino Issues Forum and Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment settled a related lawsuit against the San Joaquin Valley Unified Air Pollution Control District. As a part of the settlement the Air District agreed to adopt six new measures over the next year to reduce the daily emissions of ozone forming chemicals by more than six tons per day.

The coalition still plans to sue the EPA over its failures to: