Just looking for a little action

Today, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Coalition for a Safe Environment (CFASE) jointly filed a lawsuit in federal court to address the fact that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has failed to act on two critically important items that have been sitting in someone’s in-box since November 2007.  (I’m representing CFASE in the litigation—an organization of people of color who suffer more than most from the terrible air quality here because of the concentration of sources of air pollution in and near where they live.)

This is the 40th anniversary year of the federal Clean Air Act—the federal framework for addressing the health and economic impacts of air pollution in the United States.  Through the Act, the EPA established National Ambient Air Quality Standards (known as NAAQS—pronounced “nacs”) which are supposed to set health-protective standards for exposure to several harmful air pollutants.  These standards don’t try to ensure that the air is pristine, but they set a target for levels of pollution that reduce to an “acceptable” level the number of people who die or get very, very sick just because they breath the air.  (That’s called “risk management,” and don’t get me started on that.  Suffice it to say that it’s an effort to balance things like the fact that oil companies want to burn fossil fuel for energy which causes harmful stuff to be released into the air.)

Anyway, here in the South Coast Air Basin, we live with (or should I say “die because of” or “choke on”) some of the worst air quality in the nation.  A 2008 report of the death, illness, and economic impact of breathing here—just for the margin above the NAAQS for Particulate Matter—found that 3000 people over 30 die each year because they dare to breathe.  That same report found that 11 infants under the age of 1 die as the direct result of breathing the PM in the air here.  I call that serious.  The broader health impacts are equally staggering.   See the whole report here, which focus on PM and Ozone.

So, under the Clean Air Act, in places like the South Coast Air Basin where the air is really dirty (or as the Act describes it, in “non-attainment” for a NAAQS standard), the Air Pollution Control District must develop a Plan (an Air Quality Management Plan) that shows the EPA what efforts are going to be undertaken to bring the area into compliance with the NAAQS.  The State of California has to do one too for the sources of pollution that it oversees.  Together these plans form a State Implementation Plan (SIP).

OK, so this is where we get back to where I started this post.  The South Coast Air Quality Management District and the State of California Air Resources Board submitted their plans in November 2007.  Under federal law, the EPA was suppose to act on those submissions—that is review them and approve them, disapprove them, or approve in part and disapprove in part—within 12 months of finding that the plans are complete.  (The EPA was also supposed to determine if the plans were complete within 6 months of their submission—if the EPA fails to make a “completeness finding” then the law just assumes that they are complete.  The EPA also failed to make that “completeness finding,” but I guess that’s just water under the bridge at this point…)

After the SIPs languished at the EPA for about two-and-a-half years, NRDC and CFASE sent a letter, because it was the right thing to do (and it’s required by law), to the EPA telling them they would sue if they don’t act on the plans.   There was complete silence from the EPA—save a form letter noting that they received the letter.  That was in May.  Now, we’re suing.

Look, we know that these are busy times.  There are lots of things going on.  We hope this suit will help the EPA focus on completing this very important duty.  Without a plan in place, we cannot ensure that the air in the South Coast Air Basin will get cleaner as required—not just by the law, but also because achieving the NAAQS will save thousands of lives each year.  (Not this exact plan—because the thing needs some serious work to get the air to where it needs to be, so I should say without a good plan in place.)

We cannot, and will not, stand by while thousands of people die each year because of the audacious act of breathing.

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