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EPA sued over growing risk of nitrogen pollution

The EPA hasn't updated its standards on air quality since 2010, despite being required to review them every five years.

OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) — The Center for Biological Diversity and two Oakland-based conservation groups sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over its failure to review and update air quality standards to protect humans and the environment from nitrogen pollution nationwide.

In their complaint, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Center for Environmental Health and the Sierra Club claim EPA is not complying with Clean Air Act requirements that require the agency to review pollution standards every five years and improve them as needed to protect public health. 

The Clean Air Act requires the EPA to establish national ambient air quality standards for certain pollutants. These standards establish the maximum allowable concentration of nitrogen and other pollutants in the air.

“It’s unacceptable that the EPA is flouting the Clean Air Act and endangering public health and the environment,” said Ryan Maher, an environmental health attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The act only works if it’s followed. The EPA has ignored its obligations, amplifying harms from pollution to people all over the country. That’s illegal, so we’re asking a judge to make the agency obey the law.”

The groups claim the EPA has not reviewed air quality standards since May 2018 and has not updated its standards since 2010, despite new scientific evidence showing that nitrogen pollution in the air is more harmful to humans, wildlife and the environment than previously thought.

“Plaintiffs thus bring this action to ensure that they and their members and others who breathe harmful air pollution in communities around the nation and appreciate ecosystems damaged by harmful air pollution will enjoy the up-to-date scientific analysis and air quality standards that Congress intended them to have,” the groups say in their complaint.

Nitrogen typically ends up in the air from the burning of fossil fuels in cars or power plants.

The conservationists say nitrogen pollution is linked to a variety of human health problems, including increased risk of lung and heart disease, birth defects, diabetes, cancer, and death. Nitrogen pollution also leads to excess nitrate in water supplies, causing toxic algae that can harm the environment and wildlife.

Nitrogen can also transform into smog and can pollute soil along with the air and water.

“While the evidence on the dangerous public health impacts of nitrogen oxide pollution has grown, the air quality standards meant to protect communities have gone unchanged for too long,” said Joshua Smith, senior attorney at the Sierra Club. “Stronger standards are now long overdue, and communities are paying the price for the EPA’s inaction. Today, we're proud to join our partners in taking steps to ensure our nitrogen pollution standards are as strong as science demands and communities deserve.”

The research linking nitrogen to human health harms is stronger than it was the last time the EPA updated its air-quality standards for nitrogen pollution in 2010, according to the groups.

There are connections between nitrogen pollution in the air and higher risks of dementia, even at pollution levels below the current standards. Nitrogen pollution has also been linked to depression and worse Covid-19 outcomes.

The groups want a federal judge to declare the EPA has violated the Clean Air Act and to order the agency to perform its mandatory duties.

“People and our environment suffer when our government’s checks on air pollution fail to keep up with the science,” said Kaya Allan Sugerman, director of illegal toxic threats at the Center for Environmental Health. “The EPA is failing to fulfill its responsibility as officials have dragged their feet on updating these crucial public health standards. It shouldn’t take a lawsuit to force the agency to follow the law.”

Categories / Courts, Environment, Health

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