Failure of fed to increase community protections against ozone forces legal action

Represented by the environmental organization Earthjustice, the Sierra Club and Center for Biological Diversity filed suit in court in an effort to force the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to fulfill its obligations to protect affected communities from unhealthful levels of ozone smog.

Affected cities, regions and states, according to Earthjustice in its May 7, 2019 “Advocates Challenge EPA for Leaving Weak Clean Air Protections in Place in Eight States: Areas that still have dirty air will be subject to stronger protectionspress release, include the counties of Imperial, Nevada and San Diego in California; Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston in Texas; New York City, New York; Baltimore, Maryland; Sheboygan, Wisconsin; Phoenix, Arizona; Chicago, Illinois; and all of Connecticut. There are others, too.

As Earthjustice in the press statement in question explains, “All of these areas and others are subject to Clean Air Act protections because their ozone levels have exceeded the health and ecosystem-protective standards the EPA established in 2008. Under the Clean Air Act, EPA was legally obligated to determine by January 20, 2019, whether they had cleaned up their air enough to meet the 2008 standards. … But the EPA still has failed to make the required determinations. As a result, more effective protections have yet to go into effect, and community members and natural areas must continue to endure harmful air pollution.”

The American-based environmental-justice organization furthermore in the same release goes on to provide ozone building-block background.

“Ozone-forming pollution is made up of volatile organic compounds which are prevalent in oil, gas and petrochemical development, as well as oxides of nitrogen as a result of burning fossil fuels like coal and fracked gas. Volatile organic compounds include extremely harmful hazardous air pollutants like benzene, formaldehyde, and toluene. Ground level ozone is a dangerous pollutant that impacts those with upper respiratory issues like asthma, causes premature birth, premature death, and impacts the elderly and children significantly,” adding that not only does ozone cause harm to human health but across America ozone pollution has negative rural, suburban and urban impacts. “Under the Clean Air Act, EPA has an obligation to establish National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) for a number of common air pollutants including ground-level ozone,” in blunt and in no uncertain terms Earthjustice explained.

Meanwhile and as a slight aside, in going beyond U.S. borders but adding to this as it has to do with ozone pollution, the problem is indeed widespread. How extensive a problem is it? Nearly 1 million premature deaths yearly are attributed to ozone pollution worldwide.

According to the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) in Sweden in its Aug. 28, 2017 “One million premature deaths linked to ozone air pollution” press release, the distribution of those deaths breaks down as follows:

  • India – around 400,000
  • China – approximately 270,000
  • Africa, Europe and North America – between 50,000 and 60,000 each

“The largest contribution to global ozone-attributable respiratory deaths was from Asia, which accounted for about 79% of the total one million global estimated deaths,” the SEI submitted in the release.

Moreover, there are as well environmental-justice-issue considerations that need to be taken into account. “Reducing smog pollution is also an environmental justice concern, as many sources of ozone-forming pollution are located in low-income communities and communities of color in urban centers and rural areas,” Earthjustice further expressed. “For example, in Texas, low-income communities of color along the Houston Ship Channel face extreme pollution burdens from operations relating to petrochemicals and oil refining. Those industries are responsible for large amounts of the smog-forming pollution that affects the entire region. When the EPA takes its legally required action to increase clean air protections in Houston, facilities in the Ship Channel area will face stronger limits on the harmful volatile organic compounds and oxides of nitrogen they generate.”

The U.S.-based environmental-justice group also in the release in question points out that for those regions having and contending with polluted air deemed to be more severe, they have been given additional time to become compliant. However, at the same time, they are “subject to tougher emission limitations on new or modified ‘major sources’ of ozone-forming pollution like coal plants, refineries, and chemical facilities,” that plus improved motor-vehicle emissions control.

Bottom line, “The lawsuit is a straightforward deadline suit aimed at forcing EPA to fulfill its overdue duty to issue ‘attainment determinations’ and bump up the classifications of areas failing the 2008 standards by a date certain in the near future,” Earthjustice in the release went on to write.

“‘The EPA’s job under the Clean Air Act here is simple: determine whether these communities continue to violate the 2008 ozone standard. Its inaction is bad for community members, especially children and people with asthma. We’re going to court because it’s well past time for the EPA to follow the law and do its job,’ said Seth Johnson, an attorney with Earthjustice who is representing the Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity,” Johnson’s statements as cited in the Earthjustice release.

A smoggy New York

Image: Dr. Edwin P. Ewing, Jr., Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

This post was last revised on Jun. 14, 2019 @ 4:53 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time.

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