Environmental groups sue EPA over pollution

By Brian Melley The Associated Press
Wednesday October 23, 2002

FRESNO — Environmentalists sued the federal government Tuesday to force it to clean up air pollution in the San Joaquin Valley after a decade of neglect. 

Earthjustice filed suit in U.S. District Court in San Francisco against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for failing to do its job to reduce dust, smoke and soot that darkens skies in one of the nation’s most polluted regions. 

The suit, filed on behalf of air quality activists, asks the EPA to draft a plan to reduce particle pollution because valley air district officials have never had a workable plan in the decade since one was due. 

“I compare it to the Civil Rights movement. When your local government cannot do the job, you need help from the outside,” Kevin Hall, of the local Sierra Club chapter, said at a news conference in Fresno. “This is a human health crisis. That is our sole purpose here, to protect human health.” 

The Clean Air Act required that the air district submit a plan in November 1991 that would reduce deadly air particle pollution. 

The district missed that deadline and later submitted a plan that didn’t meet federal requirements. 

The EPA was required to impose penalties, but that never happened despite repeated failures to meet subsequent deadlines. The EPA has also failed to take action on some plans that were submitted. 

The microscopic bits of dust, soot, and smoke are kicked up on dirt roads, farm fields and spewed by fires. They cause health problems by slipping past the body’s defenses and lodging in lungs. The plaintiffs blame them for 72,000 asthma attacks and hundreds of deaths a year. 

Earthjustice is asking a court to order the EPA to freeze federal highway funds and impose stricter regulations on new and expanding businesses that should have taken effect in 1993, two years after the deadline was missed. 

The EPA said it is working with the district to develop a more stringent plan than the one required 10 years ago. 

Dave Jones, a manager at the air district, said the lawsuit is targeting outdated regulations the valley no longer has to meet. In January 1993, the district was reclassified as a “serious” violator of air particle pollution standards, the worst category. 

Instead of developing a plan to impose “reasonable” pollution controls, the district now must meet stricter requirements showing they’re using the “best” methods of reducing pollution. However, that plan is about five years overdue and subject to another round of sanctions that could kick in next summer. 

Members of the California Clean Air Campaign, a plaintiff in the suit, said they want federal intervention because they can no longer count on the local air district to do the job. 

“If it’s true, terrific,” said Susan Britton, a lawyer for Earthjustice. “As history shows, we are very skeptical of that claim.”