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EPA Gets Blame for Dirty Air

Pollution: The agency is sued, and an official admits it 'failed to act' to enforce standards in the Central Valley.

November 02, 2001|From Associated Press

FRESNO — Frustrated by a failure to clean up the Central Valley's polluted air, a coalition of environmental, health and community groups sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday to speed up enforcement of clean air standards.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, blames the EPA for shirking its responsibility while air in the valley has worsened.

"For the past decade, EPA has pandered to oil companies, agribusiness and developers at the expense of the breathing public," said Bruce Nilles, attorney for Earthjustice, the San Francisco law firm that filed the suit on behalf of four plaintiffs.

The suit blamed the EPA for not taking action on a 1997 plan by the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District to clean up dangerous soot that lingers in the air.

An EPA official admitted that the agency "failed to act" on the plan.

"It will force us to take the actions it asks us to take," said Deborah Jordan, associate EPA regional air director. "We have been delinquent."

Jordan said the agency has been working on the complex problem of controlling pollution from myriad sources, ranging from internal-combustion engines to wood stoves.

She said EPA is serious about cracking down on regulations and is pursuing sanctions against the district to clean up smog and soot.

The suit was filed as regional air quality officials--under threat of losing billions in federal highway dollars--considered imposing stiffer dust controls.

Despite huge stretches of farmland, the 25,000-square-mile San Joaquin Valley is home to some of the worst air pollution in the country.

"We're no longer the wild, wild west. We're a densely populated area," said Dr. David Pepper of the Medical Alliance for Healthy Air, one of the plaintiffs.

Though the sky overhead appears clear blue most days of the year, smog blankets the valley, putting it among the nation's five smoggiest places, the EPA said.

The dramatic Sierra Nevada, rising up from the valley 20 miles east of Fresno, is barely visible most days because of the haze.

Dust from dirt roads, mines and construction sites does its part to place the valley among the six dustiest places in the country, contributing to respiratory ailments.

Pepper, director of Community Hospital's asthma program, said he treats air pollution-related asthma, bronchitis and emphysema all the time. Studies even link heart disease to air quality.

"People say, 'There's no science proving it.' That's ridiculous," he said. "Just try to look at the mountains and realize that's the air you're breathing--the air that blocks you from seeing the mountains."

Fresno has the third-highest child asthma rate in the country, and the Visalia and Bakersfield areas are in the top 12, Pepper said.

The lawsuit was filed by Latino Issues Forum, the Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment, the Medical Alliance and the Sierra Club.

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