SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - A federal judge Monday gave the Environmental Protection Agency 16 months to designate areas that violate air quality standards for sulfur dioxide, to settle an environmental lawsuit.
U.S. District Judge Susan Illston signed a consent decree to the August 2013 lawsuit filed by the Sierra Club and Natural Resources Defense Council.
Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA must create and publish national ambient air quality standards for harmful air pollutants, including sulfur dioxide. It must review these standards every five years and revise them if needed.
The EPA established a 3-hour standard of 0.5 parts per million for sulfur dioxide in May 1996, and reduced it to a one-hour standard of 0.75 parts per billion in June 2010 in light of scientific studies indicating that the old standard did not adequately protect public health .
Exposure to sulfur dioxide can cause many health problems and exacerbate respiratory illnesses such as like bronchitis and asthma. Most industrial emissions of sulfur dioxide result from burning fossil fuels; smaller sources include sulfur-burning trains and ships and certain kinds of equipment.
States usually have a year to submit lists of areas that do not meet a new pollution standard. The EPA then has two years to publish the lists and designate areas as attainment, nonattainment, or unclassified under the revised standard.
The groups claimed the EPA shirked this nondiscretionary duty by failing to publish area designations for the revised sulfur dioxide standards by the statutory deadline.
In January 2014, Judge Illston ordered the agency to publish a designation list for all areas in each state and urged the parties to reach an agreement on the matter.
After negotiations, the parties reached a consent agreement, which Illston signed Monday.
Among other things, it requires the EPA to publish air quality definitions for undesignated areas pursuant to the 2010 revised sulfur dioxide standard within 16 months of the court order.
The list must include areas that "emitted more than 16,000 tons of SO2 in 2012 or (2) emitted more than 2,600 tons of SO2 and had an annual average emission rate of 0.45 lbs. SO2/Mmbtu [one thousand British thermal units] or higher in 2012," according to the agreement.
Excluded from this list are areas that contain stationary sources of coal-fired sulfur dioxide emissions with capacities of more than 5 megawatts that are set to cease coal-burning operations.
The EPA must also initiate new rulemaking, requiring states to "collect and analyze additional information regarding SO2 emissions concentrations." It has until December 2020 to publish lists designating which states have not "installed and begun operating a new SO2 monitoring network" in light of that new rulemaking.
Since funding issues could prevent the EPA from meeting its deadlines, the agreement allows deadlines to be extended one day for each day of delay. The agency must notify the plaintiffs and explain the reasons for the delay.
The EPA also agreed to pay the plaintiffs' attorneys' fees. The court gave the parties 120 days to iron out claims for litigation costs, and will resolve any disputes regarding them.
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.