L.A. smog: Public health groups file suit against EPA [Updated]
Under the federal Clean Air Act, Congress established a one-hour standard for ozone pollution, a principal contributor to smog. In 1990 amendments to the act, it required the EPA to certify by May 2011 that air districts have met the standard. If the air is still dangerous to public health, then state and regional authorities must implement a cleanup plan.
“The L.A. region hasn’t met the national standard,” said environmental attorney Angela Johnson-Meszaros. “The EPA has a duty to make that determination, and they have not. We ask that they just look at the data and tell us if we met the health-based standard.”
The plaintiffs in the suit include Physicians for Social Responsibility-Los Angeles, Desert Citizens Against Pollution, Communities for a Better Environment and the Natural Resources Defense Council. [update 6:56 p.m.: A similar suit challenging whether San Joaquin Valley had met the ozone standard was filed Monday on behalf of the Sierra Club and Medical Advocates for Healthy Air.]
The one-hour standard measures the amount of ozone in the air, averaged over one hour. Monitoring stations across the south coast region collect data for the air district, which includes Orange County and densely populated areas of Los Angeles, San Bernardino and Riverside.
The national standard calls for less than .12 parts per million of ozone in the air in an hour. As of last year, the south coast averaged .143 ppm.
The Central Valley and the south coast are the only two areas in California still trying to meet the national standard. The EPA’s “silence” on the L.A. region supports the idea that the agency “knows we haven’t met the standard and it is choosing to not make the determination,” Johnson-Meszaros said.
A crackdown on ozone is politically challenging because it would require tougher limits on pollution from cars, trucks, ships, refineries and other sources.
Sam Atwood, a spokesman for the Air Quality Management District, said that the agency has adopted a plan to meet an eight-hour ozone standard, which he said is "much more stringent" than the one-hour standard. The standard, which measures average ozone levels over eight hours, offers more health protection and requires stricter pollution controls.
An EPA spokesman declined to comment on the litigation.
Adrian Martinez, an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said that the region has taken measures to control ozone pollution “but the question is whether it’s happening fast enough.”
Los Angeles is the smoggiest region in the nation, according to the American Lung Assn.’s 2011 State of the Air report. Scientific studies have found that ozone inflames the respiratory system, causing asthma attacks, hospitalizations and premature deaths. “Angelenos continue to breathe smoggy air that makes people sick, forcing mothers to question whether to allow children to play outside on dirty-air days. These are choices mothers should not have to make,” Martinez said.
In Los Angeles, an estimated 1 million adults and 300,000 children suffer from asthma, outranking 23 other congested cities.
According to a 2007 study by the Cal State Fullerton, 41 people die every year in the south coast area and the San Joaquin Valley because of air pollution. In the study, Dr. Jane Hall found that air pollution deaths in the region are more than double the motor vehicle-related deaths. Her team also estimated that failure to meet clean air standards for ozone and particulates results in a cost of $1,250 per person per year in health costs in the Los Angeles region, or a total of $22 billion dollars in annual costs.
“The EPA has an obligation to make the finding about our air quality,” Johnson-Meszaros said. “Silence and inaction are not an option in the face of the kind of harm caused by air pollution.”
-- Ashlie Rodriguez
Photo: Lawrence K. Ho /Los Angeles Times