SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - The Environmental Protection Agency must identify areas that meet or fail to meet air quality standards for sulfur dioxide, a federal judge ruled.
The Clean Air Act tasks the EPA with establishing national ambient air quality standards for sulfur dioxide and other harmful air pollutants. After publishing its standards, the EPA must review them every five years and update them if necessary.
After adopting a 3-hour standard of 0.5 parts per million for sulfur dioxide in May 1996, the agency reduced this to a one-hour standard of 0.75 parts per billion in June 2010 after studies showed that the original standard was insufficient to protect the public health, according to the original complaint.
States have a year to submit lists of areas that met or fell short of pollution standards for the gas. They must also submit plans for nonattainment areas within 18 months of a new designation that detail how an area will meet the new standards by no later than seven years from the date of an area's nonattainment status.
In turn, the EPA has two years to publish a list in the Federal Registrar of which areas in each state failed to meet the new standards, called designations. The EPA was supposed to issue these area designations by June 2012, but used its authority under the Clean Air Act to give itself another year after it missed the deadline.
Though the EPA eventually published a list of area designations on Aug. 5, 2013, it contained only 29 areas in 16 states, and none in California. The EPA claimed it was not ready to issue designations for other areas but said it intended to do so in the future.
The Sierra Club and co-plaintiff National Resources Defense Council filed suit last summer, claiming the EPA had violated its nondiscretionary duties. And on Friday, U.S. District Judge Susan Illston ordered the EPA to publish a designation list for all areas of each state.
Illston also allowed seven states to permissively intervene as plaintiffs over the objections of the environmental groups and the EPA, including Kentucky, Louisiana, North Carolina, North Dakota, Arizona, Nevada and Texas. The environmentalists had said the only remedy in the matter would be a new deadline for the EPA to publish a complete list of area designations.
Illston, however, found that the states have a protected interest in the matter.
Since the states are responsible for designing and executing new plans to bring polluted areas into compliance with the new standards, they have a right to know as soon as possible if their current sulfur dioxide reduction programs are adequate, according to Illston.
She also ordered the parties to discuss the matter and, depending on whether or not they can come to an agreement, to file either a joint stipulation or a briefing schedule for further arguments within 21 days of the order.
Sulfur dioxide can cause many health problems and exacerbates the symptoms of respiratory illnesses like bronchitis and asthma. Fossil fuel combustion causes most of industrial emissions for sulfur dioxide, while smaller sources include fuel burned by trains and large ships, according to the EPA's sulfur dioxide webpage.
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