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Court Upholds Imperial County Clean Air Rules

U.S. justices reject contention by farmers and the EPA that Mexico is source of pollution.

June 22, 2004|Henry Weinstein | Times Staff Writer

The Supreme Court on Monday let stand an order requiring stronger clean air protections for Imperial County, a region that has one of the highest childhood asthma rates in the state.

In October, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 3 to 0 that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency erred in blaming Mexico for unhealthful air quality in the Imperial Valley and ordered the agency to impose more stringent control measures on the U.S. side of the border.

The Imperial County Air Pollution Control District, the defendant, objected and asked the Supreme Court to review the case. The high court, without explanation, declined.

"This is great news for public health," said attorney David S. Baron, who argued the case before the 9th Circuit on behalf of the Sierra Club. "We hope that the state and the county will now move on with the job of adopting the stronger antipollution measures required by the law."

Imperial County, Baron said, has exceeded federal health standards for airborne particulates hundreds of times over the last 10 years, according to EPA estimates, with levels sometimes double the permissible amount.

The goal of the environmental groups is to get farms, mines, factories and developers to take steps that will lower the level of particulate pollutants -- including diesel soot, tire fragments, oil droplets and dust -- that cause haze and health hazards.

The suit was filed by Earthjustice, an environmental law firm representing the Sierra Club, after the EPA in 2001 allowed Imperial County to skirt stronger Clean Air Act requirements. The county asserted that its violations were caused by pollution from Mexico.

Last year, however, the 9th Circuit ruled that the facts did not support that contention.

"Based on the data and the reports in the record, there simply is no possibility that Mexican transport could have caused" the observed levels of airborne particles, Judge Diarmuid F. O'Scannlain wrote. The court concluded that the EPA relied on faulty data and misinterpretations of pollution and wind measurements.

In his opinion, O'Scannlain, one of the 9th Circuit's most conservative judges, took the unusual step of ordering the EPA to act immediately, rather than performing more research on the issue.

"We fail to see how further administrative proceedings would serve a useful purpose; the record here has been fully developed, and the conclusions that must follow from it are clear," he added. It is not known how much time Imperial County has to comply with national air quality standards, but Pat Gallagher of the Sierra Club said the county needs to act swiftly. "They already are long overdue."

Stephen Birdsall, Imperial County's air pollution control officer, said it already has been redoing an inventory of emissions sources to identify the primary polluters.

Among the candidates, he said, are agriculture, dirt roads that generate dust, and Mexico.

EPA spokeswoman Lisa Fasano said the agency would work with officials from Imperial County and the California Air Resources Board to come up with a plan. She acknowledged that even if pollution from Mexico is part of the problem, Imperial County has to take steps to curb its own sources of particulate pollutants. The goal, she said, is to bring clear air to the area.

Imperial County produces about $1.2 billion worth of alfalfa, carrots, lettuce and sugar beets annually, and farm owners are worried about the impact of the ruling.

"Imperial County Farm Bureau stands firm in its belief that the majority of airborne pollution in our valley travels across the border from Mexicali," said Nicole M. Rothfleisch, the bureau's executive director. "Agriculture is an insignificant source ... when compared to naturally occurring [dust] and that which is coming from our million-plus neighbors across the border.

"Although I hope that we can come up with a reasonable plan for farmers to stay in compliance with these stringent air quality rules, my concern is that this new ruling will devastate the already struggling agriculture industry here in the Imperial Valley."

Janie Davis, president of the American Lung Assn. of San Diego and Imperial counties, said Monday's action "will be so important to the future health of the county." She said the pollution had contributed to significant asthma problems among children in the area and breathing difficulties for senior citizens.

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