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EPA to Review Disputed Smog Plan


In a victory for clean-air advocates in the San Joaquin Valley, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has agreed to review disputed anti-smog strategies in one of the nation's smoggiest regions.

Under a legal agreement announced Tuesday, the EPA has decided to revisit a series of measures in the valley intended to reduce haze and smog, but that environmentalists charge are too lax.

"This is a good day for the San Joaquin Valley," said Bruce Nilles, attorney for Earthjustice, a San Francisco-based legal arm of the environmental movement. "We are pleased with this settlement because it is an important step to ensure that another generation of valley residents will not be forced to breathe life-threatening pollution," he said.

The agreement signals greater scrutiny of the haze that enshrouds the valley and the adequacy of steps to reduce it. The valley has been the locus of a growing dispute over smog cleanup in California as other parts of the state, including Los Angeles, post rapid gains against air pollution while progress in the fast-growing valley continues to languish.

Sequoia National Park, immediately downwind of the valley, ranks as the nation's smoggiest national park. The valley, which has missed key cleanup targets, now is saddled with smog that rivals Los Angeles and Houston for worst-in-the-nation status. In October, the EPA officially reclassified the valley as severely polluted.

Yet environmental groups challenged the EPA and San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District for failing to act more aggressively against smog. A coalition of medical, community and environmental groups sued the EPA in November to force the agency to act on seven cleanup strategies.

Under a legal settlement, which is yet to be approved in U.S. District Court, the EPA agreed to act on a comprehensive plan to reduce smoke and dust in the valley that critics say is too weak. Despite a Clean Air Act requirement, the region has never had a federally approved plan to clean up emissions that contribute to microscopic particles that cloud the valley sky.

"We now are going to have to deal with the San Joaquin Valley's air plan in very short order," said Nina Spiegelman, associate counsel for EPA's California office.

Also, the EPA agreed to review six rules dealing with turbines, pumps and boilers used in oil fields and other equipment. Although some of those rules are in force, they are not included in California's official clean-air plan and therefore they cannot be enforced by citizens or the federal government, Nilles said. The EPA must complete its review of those matters by Aug. 23. Environmentalists hope that some of the rules will be replaced by stronger measures.

"This is the beginning of a long process. We must continue our vigilance over the government to make sure it continues making progress toward cleaning our dirty air," said Leo Avila, president of the board of Latino Issues Forum.

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