OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) – The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency can no longer delay enforcing new air quality rules that are expected to save hundreds of lives and billions of dollars in health costs each year, a federal judge ruled Monday.
Ten nonprofits led by the American Lung Association, and 15 states led by California, sued the EPA in December 2017 for failing to determine which areas of the country did not meet new ozone air quality standards established by the Obama administration in 2015.
“The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency admitted in this case that it failed to do its job and meet its deadline under the Clean Air Act,” California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said in a statement Monday.
The new smog reduction standards are expected to save 316 to 660 lives and prevent nearly 900 hospital visits and 160,000 missed school days each year, creating annual health benefits of $4.5 billion, according to EPA estimates.
The new requirements were issued Oct. 1, 2015, triggering a two-year deadline for the EPA to assess compliance among localities. Those regions that fail to meet ozone standards must take immediate steps to reduce pollution and develop plans for full compliance within three years.
In 2017, the EPA, under the leadership of President Donald Trump’s appointee Scott Pruitt, gave itself a one-year deadline extension. After several states challenged that action in the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, the EPA retreated and agreed to abide by the Oct. 1, 2017 deadline. But the deadline still passed with no action by the EPA.
On Nov. 6, 2017, the agency issued designations for parts of the country which it deemed in compliance or “unclassifiable,” but it rendered no decisions for the most polluted areas of the country, including Baltimore, Chicago, Philadelphia and San Antonio, Texas.
In a ruling Monday, U.S. District Judge Haywood Gilliam Jr. ordered the EPA to issue final designations by April 30, with an exception for eight counties in the San Antonio area.
The EPA granted the San Antonio area a six-month extension after Texas requested extra time to submit more information about its air quality four days before the deadline. The EPA said it would need until April 12 to assess the new data, but Gilliam found that delay unjustified.
“Texas’s information is at best additional, which falls outside the scope of any applicable exception to the [Clean Air Act]’s two-year compliance deadline,” Gilliam wrote in his 13-page ruling.
Gilliam noted the EPA’s justification for the delay “effectively allows states to drive the agency’s timeline for statutory compliance.”
The judge ordered the EPA to issue a decision on the San Antonio area’s compliance within seven days, followed by a 120-day notice and comment period.
However, Gilliam refused to make the final designations effective immediately, finding the Clean Air Act creates no timeline for effective dates. The EPA vowed to make final designations effective within 30 to 60 days.
“The court assumes that EPA will meet its stated 30 to 60 day timeline, and would consider whether a further order is necessary if it fails to do so,” the judge wrote.
Becerra said California would closely monitor the EPA’s compliance with the court’s order.
Enforcement of the Clean Air Act has prevented premature deaths, saved lives, and enabled children to grow up with healthier lungs, said Janice Nolen, assistant vice president of national policy for the American Lung Association.
“Where other parts of the world are struggling with this, we in the U.S. thanks to the Clean Air Act and enforcement of the Clean Air Act have helped reduce pollution,” she said.
Fighting for enforcement of ozone pollution standards is one of several legal battles the American Lung Association is waging to protect clean air, Nolen added.
Another looming legal battle will likely involve challenging the Trump administration’s plan to dismantle the Obama-era Clean Power Plan, which aims to promote renewable energy and reduce carbon dioxide emissions from coal-burning power plants by 32 percent by 2030, she said.
“There are lots of things we are doing in court to clean up the air, reduce ozone and protect public health,” Nolen said. “This is one of a long list.”
Other nonprofit plaintiffs in the lawsuit include American Public Health Association, American Thoracic Society, Appalachian Mountain Club, Environmental Defense Fund, Environmental Law And Policy Center, National Parks Conservation Association, Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, and West Harlem Environmental Action.
Other state plaintiffs involved in the litigation include New York, Connecticut, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington, and the District of Columbia.
The EPA and U.S. Department of Justice did not immediately respond to emails seeking comment Monday afternoon.