FRESNO — The San Joaquin Valley’s notoriously dirty air is the target of a planned suit by environmental groups who claim the federal government and the valley’s air district aren’t doing enough to clean it up.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the San Joaquin Valley United Air Pollution Control District consistently have failed to meet cleanup deadlines mandated by the federal Clean Air Act and have given the agricultural and petroleum industries undue exemptions to air quality standards, the environmentalists claim.
“It’s time to do something about the valley’s air pollution ... We have unnecessary suffering. We have unnecessary loss of life,” said Sierra Club member Kevin Hall.
Hall and members of the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, the Latino Issues Forum, the Medical Alliance for Healthy Air and the Center for Race, Poverty and the Environment announced Tuesday they will sue the EPA and the San Joaquin Valley air district in two months. Federal rules mandate 60 days notice before a suit can be filed.
The groups claim the air district has missed every deadline to implement tougher soot and smog standards since the Clean Air Act was passed in 1970. The EPA also failed 19 times over the past six years to step in and enforce federal clean air rules when the air district fell short of its responsibilities, said Earthjustice lawyer Deborah Reams.
One of the environmentalists’ main complaints is that the EPA failed to designate the eight-county air basin as a “severe non-attainment area for ozone,” one of the main components of smog.
Had the EPA done that, the region would have been forced to comply with strict pollution-control measures and come up with a plan to reduce pollution by 3 percent a year.
EPA officials say they are reviewing the group’s complaints and were close to bumping up the valley into a severe non-attainment classification before anyone mentioned a suit.
“There’s a very good chance that we’ll be finalizing that bump-up in the early fall. This lawsuit could force us to doing something a little earlier than anticipated,” said John Ungvarsky, an environmental scientist with the EPA.
Ungvarsky said the EPA will be talking with the environmentalists in an effort to reach a compromise and avoid a protracted legal battle. Many of the potential litigants, however, said endless red tape and years of foot dragging by federal and San Joaquin Valley officials left them impatient and ready for a legal fight.
“Fresno and the surrounding areas are one of the three worst spots in the nation for asthma. One in 12 to one in 10 people ... either has asthma or has a family member with asthma,” said David Pepper, a UCSF Medical Center, Fresno physician and member of the Medical Alliance.
“Living in the valley is like smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. That’s the kind of air we’re breathing,” Pepper said.