SAN FRANCISCO – California and 10 other states filed a lawsuit Wednesday seeking to force the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to take action to reduce air pollution in smoggy areas of those states where air quality has fallen below federal standards.
According to a federal complaint filed by Center for Biological Diversity and Center for Environmental Health, the Trump administration’s EPA has shirked its mandatory duty to approve or disapprove state plans for improving air quality in 19 high-smog areas in California as well as Arizona, Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas and Wisconsin.
More than 80 million people, nearly a quarter of the U.S. population, live in those areas.
Environmentalists blame oil and gas drilling as the driving force behind air quality degradation in those parts of the country.
“Oil and fracked gas drilling is a major contributor to the smog that’s poisoning the air for millions of people across the U.S.,” said Robert Ukeiley, a lawyer with the Center for Biological Diversity. “The Trump EPA is working overtime to protect the polluters responsible for the smog that’s triggering asthma attacks and other serious health problems that routinely send people to the hospital.”
The Clean Air Act requires the EPA to determine whether state plans for meeting air quality standards are “administratively complete” within six months. Once a determination is made, the EPA has 12 months to approve, disapprove, or conditionally approve each state plan.
“It has been more than 12 months since these submittals were found administratively complete by EPA or deemed administratively complete by operation of law. Yet, EPA has not taken final action approving or disapproving, in full or part these submittals,” environmental groups complain in their 14-page lawsuit.
The EPA strengthened standards for ozone – smog – which can cause respiratory problems such as asthma in humans, in 2008 and 2015.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 13 people, or 25 million Americans, suffer from asthma. In 2013, children missed 13.8 million school days due to asthma. It was the top reason for missed school days among children in the United States, the CDC found.
“I wish our government adored children as much as it does the oil and gas industry,” said Caroline Cox, research director at the Center for Environmental Health. “We must continue to fight the Trump administration to ensure children and families are able to breathe clean air.”
A 2015 study by the EPA estimated that Clean Air Act smog-reduction programs will prevent more than 3,180 premature deaths and 390,000 asthma attacks in children. Harmful air pollution was cut 70% since 1970 when the Clean Air Act became law, and smog levels were down 33% since 1980, according to the study.
The study also estimated the public health economic benefits of strengthening air quality standards in 2015 at $2.9 billion to $5.9 billion, far higher than the $1.4 billion in expected costs.
According to the environmental groups, reducing air pollution also helps protect forests, which face an increased risk of disease and insect infestation. Sensitive tree species at risk from ozone pollution include black cherry, quaking aspen, cottonwood and ponderosa pine, which provides critical habitat for threatened species such as the Mexican spotted owl and Pawnee montane skipper.
The lawsuit names Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston-Galveston-Brazoria as two areas in Texas for which the EPA has failed to act on air quality improvement plans. Last year, an environmental group reported that “unauthorized” air pollution from Texas industries more than doubled from 2017 to 2018.
The lawsuit also comes amid a historically low level of prosecutions for environmental crimes under the Trump administration, according to Justice Department data analyzed by Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC).
The environmental groups’ claims include violations of the Clean Air Act. They seek an injunction requiring the EPA to act on state plans for reducing smog.
They are represented by Perry Elerts of the Center for Biological Diversity in Oakland, California.
An EPA spokesperson said the agency would not comment on pending litigation.
— By Nicholas Iovino