Three nonprofits sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Friday over its decision to lift obligations from San Joaquin Valley air regulators to cut dust pollution as required under the federal Clean Air Act.
The Latino Issues Forum, Medical Advocates for Healthy Air and the Sierra Club contest a decision made in October 2006 to remove the valley’s designation as a region that violates federal standards for coarse particulate pollution.
Air district and federal officials dismissed the lawsuit, saying that strong winds made local air quality register as "very unhealthy" on a few days since the decision to consider the valley clean enough in terms of larger particulate pollution.
The groups argue that the change effectively removes the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District’s obligation to reduce airborne soot, dust and smoke, which the independent California Health Interview survey said kills 1,200 people in the valley every year and causes the high incidence of asthma in the region. Plus, plaintiffs point out, 1-in-5 kids in the valley air basin suffer from asthma — nearly twice the state average.
"We did have some very unusual weather that created some windblown dust," said Scott Nester from the air district’s office in Fresno.
Though air quality monitors in the valley prove that the area falls short of federal standards, the federal regulators and the local air district argue that the repeated violations are anomalies and don’t need more controls to get fixed.
Anything that generates dust, soot or smoke is considered a source of particulate matter pollution, according to federal regulators, who have long warned against exposure to particulate matter less than 10 microns in diameter, because it causes respiratory problems, cardiovascular disease and premature death.
The agency in 1987 adopted controls to regulate larger soot, dust and smoke pollution and required regions out of compliance to come up with plans to change that. The valley is one of the worst offenders in the country in terms of both large and small particulate pollution, according to state and federal officials and independent environmental experts.
Yet the federal agency in 2006 and again in 2007 changed the valley’s designation as an offender to a region that’s up to code.
"This is a classic case of trying to sweep the dust under the rug," said Paul Cort of Earthjustice, who represents the plaintiffs. "The air is not clean, and the agencies have not done their job to protect the public health."
The local air district plans to issue a statement soon contesting the Earthjustice petition.
To view the complaint, go to www.earthjustice.org/library/legal_docs/petition-pm-10.pdf.