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Lawsuit To Address Valley Clean Air Crisis


A coalition of environmental justice, public health, and conservation groups filed a lawsuit challenging the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over its decision not to intervene following California’s repeated failures to meet decades-old air pollution targets for fine particulate matter (PM-2.5) in the San Joaquin Valley.

The Clean Air Act requires EPA to issue a federal plan if EPA finds that a state failed to submit a complete, timely state plan to achieve air quality standards, and if the state cannot fix its delay by getting an approved plan in place within two years. In this instance, a deadline was put in place two years after a December 2018 EPA finding that the California Air Resources Board and San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District failed to submit revised state plans to meet the 1997, 2006, and 2012 PM-2.5 standards.

Although the state agencies did eventually submit plans several years late, EPA subsequently withheld approval for significant portions of the California plans due to inadequacies. Because sections of the state plans have still yet to be approved, EPA has been required under the Clean Air Act to develop a federal plan for the San Joaquin Valley since January 2021.

The lawsuit was filed in the Federal District court for the Northern District of California.

“For decades, EPA has excused California’s failure to follow the law and develop timely, effective plans to clean up the air in the Valley,” said Greg Muren, an attorney with Earthjustice. “Now, the Clean Air Act requires EPA to step in and develop a plan of its own that will actually work. EPA should follow through on its stated commitment to environmental justice and give residents the bare minimum that they deserve: air that is safe to breathe.”

The San Joaquin Valley ranks as having by far the worst PM-2.5 pollution in the nation, containing several of the most polluted U.S. counties for PM-2.5 pollution. The Valley also remains the only region in the nation yet to meet the 24-year-old 1997 annual PM-2.5 standard and recently missed a deadline to attain that standard for the third time in December of 2020.

“EPA’s failure to adhere to the Clean Air Act is indicative of the nearly quarter-century of delay, neglect, and broken promises we have seen from state and federal agencies in charge of cleaning up the air in the Valley,” said Mark Rose, Sierra Nevada Program Manager for the National Parks Conservation Association. “As a result, Valley residents are facing a clean air catastrophe, and nearby national parks, such as Yosemite and Sequoia, suffer from air pollution levels exceeding many major cities.”

“Sadly, but not surprisingly, another promise to attain health-protective standards for deadly particle pollution has been broken,” said Dr. Catherine Garoupa White, Executive Director of the Central Valley Air Quality Coalition (CVAQ). “Particle pollution severely impacts health and quality of life for everyone. Spikes in PM-2.5 are linked with increased emergency room hospitalizations, especially for asthma attacks, heart attacks, and pneumonia. For decades, our region has suffered epidemic sickness caused by air pollution, and our communities are even more vulnerable now due to COVID19 and the climate crisis.”

Groups are hopeful that a successful lawsuit will result in EPA developing a federal plan that will finally attain all four PM-2.5 clean air standards currently in place.