By Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 19, 2006
Thirteen states and the District sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in federal court in Washington yesterday to try to get the agency to strengthen its restrictions on the amount of soot that industries and automobiles can release into the air.
The states and the District say that, under the Bush administration, the EPA has ignored scientific evidence and the advice of its own experts about premature deaths and illnesses caused by soot, the microscopic air pollution known as fine particulate matter. EPA analysis found that a relatively small reduction in yearly particulate matter emissions could prevent thousands of deaths annually in the United States and reduce chronic respiratory disease and asthma attacks.
In addition to the District, officials from California, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maine, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Vermont joined New York in the action that New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer's office filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. The filers of the suit -- motivated by concern for their residents' health and by migrating air pollution they cannot control -- asked the federal appeals court to find that the agency had failed in its legal duty to protect the environment and public health.
In a required five-year review of its soot standards, the Bush administration agreed in September to cut the amount of soot that Americans can be exposed to in any 24-hour period from 65 micrograms per cubic meter of air to 35 micrograms. But the agency, rejecting its own scientific panel's recommendations, left unchanged the current standard for the annual maximum amount of soot Americans could breathe: 15 micrograms per cubic meter per day.
The states and the District want to reduce that annual maximum to 13 or 14 micrograms per cubic meter per day -- the amount that EPA's scientific advisory panel overwhelmingly voted to recommend last year. The EPA's own impact analysis states that if the annual standard were lowered to 14 micrograms, an additional 1,000 to 11,000 lives could be saved. Other research shows that lowering the acceptable level to 13 micrograms could prevent 24,000 premature deaths a year.
"The reason the District joined this suit is that we aren't meeting the standards for healthy air right now," said Traci L. Hughes, a spokeswoman for the D.C. attorney general's office. "The problem is that most of our pollution in the District comes from cars and transportation sources, and the District doesn't have the tools to reduce that pollution itself. We agree with EPA's scientific advisory panel that we need to cut the amount of soot that Americans breathe."
When announcing the new soot standards in September, EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson called them "the most health-protective air quality standards in U.S. history."
Jennifer Wood, an EPA spokeswoman, said yesterday: "Where the science was clear, we took clear action. After reviewing thousands of studies based on the best available science, EPA significantly strengthened the previous daily standard by nearly 50 percent and retained the current annual standard."
The National Cattlemen's Beef Association, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, American Farm Bureau Federation and National Pork Producers Council are among business groups that also have sued, arguing that the soot rules are too stringent. The states and the District joined a series of opponents who have filed challenges that claim the rules are too weak, including Earthjustice, the American Lung Association, Environmental Defense and the National Parks Conservation Association.
"It is unfortunate that this coalition of states must resort to legal action to get the EPA to do its job to protect the environment and the public health," Spitzer said.