PASADENA, Calif. (CN) - Reducing pollution for the more than 1 million people who live close to freeways in Southern California requires more action from the U.S. government, environmentalists told the 9th Circuit on Wednesday.
The morning hearing on fine-particulate matter, or PM2.5, pollution in the L.A. Basin involves five cases from environmental groups against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
"We are all here today because the government has fallen down on its job of making sure the most polluted regions in the country attain the Clean Air Act standard," attorney Maya Golden-Krasner told the three-judge appellate panel.
"It's as if they've given up," she added. "They've decided, 'Hey, we can see the mountains now. That's good enough.' Except under the Clean Air Act, that's not good enough."
The basin, which includes Orange, Los Angeles, Riverside and San Bernardino Counties, originally had until 2011 to meet national air-quality standards, according to a brief on the case that Golden-Krasner, an attorney with Communities for a Better Environment, filed on behalf of Physicians for Social Responsibility.
It is "unlikely" that the California Air Resources Board and the South Coast Air Quality Management District will meet a 2015 deadline already extended by the EPA had extended, the brief states.
California's state-implementation plan, or SIP, to reduce pollution does not meet Clean Air Act standards, but the EPA approved it anyway, the group claims.
Golden-Krasner insisted that the EPA should do more to make sure the agencies are protecting the public health from particulate-matter pollution. The tiny particles measure 2.5 microns in diameter, roughly 30 times smaller than a human hair. The pollution is thought to contribute to respiratory illnesses, cancer and heart disease.
Urging the court to dismiss the petition, Department of Justice attorney Heather Gange meanwhile argued that enough checks and balances already ensure that both the California Air Resources Board and the South Coast Air Quality Management District adopt Clean Air Act standards.
Judge Sidney Runyan Thomas questioned how the EPA could make sure the L.A. Basin is in compliance with PM2.5 standards, adopted in 1997.
"Explain to me the mechanics of how the EPA or the plaintiffs for a citizen suit could enforce it in this case," Judge Thomas asked.
Gange said the information the EPA or the plaintiffs would need to make a determination is publicly available in dockets for agency hearings and notices. The EPA reviews changes to SIPs before they are approved, the attorney added.
"Simply watching the docket of those agencies will tell you whether or not the agencies are taking the action that's required under the Clean Air Act," Gange said.
Barbara Baird, representing South Coast Air Quality Management District, went a step farther in calling for dismissal of the environmental groups' petition.
"The argument that that the agencies have fallen down on the job just isn't really correct," Baird said. "The data that we submitted to the EPA shows that we actually attained this standard [under the Clean Air Act] as through the years 2011 to 2013. So the SIP [state implementation plan] was working and has worked."
But during rebuttal, Golden-Krasner said the plan falls well short of air-quality standards.
"This plan cannot demonstrate attainment because it is not protecting the over one million people who live within three hundred meters of the freeways that cross Southern California," the attorney added.
The court heard four other cases that challenged revisions and approval of the SIP for pollution. The plaintiffs in those cases are the groups A Better Arvin, Committee For a Better Arvin, Communities for a Better Environment, and California Communities Against Toxics.
Physicians for Social Responsibility's petition for review of EPA approval of a South Coast Air Quality Management District plan for monitoring pollution was vacated after the court granted the parties' joint motion for a continuance of oral argument.
Chief Judge Alex Kozinski sat with Judge Thomas on the bench. Judge Ronald Gould appeared via live video.
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