Greens Tell EPA to Do Its Darn Job

     SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – The U.S. EPA is endangering public health by failing to identify areas that violate air quality standards for sulfur dioxide, the Sierra Club claims in court.
     The Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and its Administrator Regina McCarthy in Federal Court.
     “SO2 [sulfur dioxide] has numerous harmful effects on human respiratory systems, including narrowing of the airways that can constrict breathing (bronchoconstriction) and increased asthma symptoms,” the complaint states. “Short-term exposure to SO2 has also been linked to increased hospital and emergency room admissions for respiratory illness, particularly among children, the elderly and asthmatics.”
     In May 1996 the EPA set a 3-hour standard of 0.5 parts per million for sulfur dioxide, but reduced this to a 1-hour standard of .75 parts per billion in June 2010.
     It changed the standard because “scientific evidence [showed] that the pre-existing SO2 NAAQS [National Ambient Air Quality Standards] did not adequately protect people’s health,” the complaint states.
     “EPA has estimated that the implementation of the revised SO2 NAAQS would annually prevent up to 5,900 premature deaths, 3,900 nonfatal heart attacks, 54,000 cases of asthma exacerbation, and 290,000 work loss days,” according to the complaint.
     The Clean Air Act tasks the EPA with establishing air quality standards for pollutants that “cause or contribute to air pollution which may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare.” After the EPA publishes its standards, it must review them every 5 years.
     State governors generally have a year to submit lists to the EPA that identify areas in that did or did not attain air quality standards for pollutants.
     “For SO2, states must submit such plans for areas designated nonattainment within 18 months of the designation, and those plans must provide for attainment of the NAAQS as expeditiously as practicable, but no later than 7 years from the date of a nonattainment designation,” the complaint states.
     The EPA has 2 years after it revises pollution standards to designate which areas in each state failed to meet the new standards, and to publish this list in the Federal Register.
     But EPA “failed to promulgate and publish area designations … for the revised SO2 NAAQS for any areas in the nation by June 2, 2012. The administrator also failed to promulgate and publish such designations for any areas in the nation by June 22, 2012, two years from the publication of the revised SO2 NAAQS in the Federal Register,” according to the complaint.
     The EPA used its authority under the Clean Air Act to extend this deadline by one year, but failed to promulgate designations by the new deadline of June 22 this year.
     “On August 5, 2013, EPA published in the Federal Register its final air quality designation for a handful of areas in the United States for the 2010 primary SO2 NAAQS,” the complaint states. “Specifically, EPA made area designations for only 29 areas in only 16 states (none in California), finding those areas to be in nonattainment for the standard based on monitored air quality data. EPA expressly stated that it was ‘not yet prepared’ to issue designations for any other areas in the nation and that it intended to address such designations in future actions.” (Parentheses in complaint.)
     The plaintiffs sent two letters to the EPA in June, telling it that it had missed its statutory deadline to issue the area designations, but more than “60 days have elapsed … and the administrator has continued her failure to perform such nondiscretionary duties,” according to the complaint.
     By not completing these designations and not publishing the list, the EPA is withholding information about exposure to airborne sulfur dioxide and endangering the public health, the groups claim.
     The plaintiffs seek declaratory judgment that the EPA violated the Clean Air Act, and ordered to “perform its mandatory duties by a certain date forthwith.”
     They are represented by Paul R. Court with EarthJustice and Zachary M. Fabish of the Sierra Club.

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