Environmentalists say lawsuit could trigger nationwide PM 2.5 standards

Source: Jason Plautz, E&E reporter • Posted: Monday, May 20, 2013

Environmentalists say a suit filed this week that charges U.S. EPA has not done enough to ensure that Utah is cleaning up fine particulate matter could force the agency to require more stringent action on fine particulates in other states.

The lawsuit from WildEarth Guardians filed Wednesday builds on a January decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit that said EPA must re-examine how it implements standards for fine particulates, or PM 2.5. Under that decision, the court required EPA to regulate fine particulates differently from more coarse, and less dangerous, particulates.

This week’s suit specifically hits EPA for not enforcing those earlier deadlines and requiring that Utah submit a plan to clean up PM 2.5 in the Wasatch Front region, which has been designated as a “nonattainment area.” Under the Clean Air Act deadlines for fine particulates, Utah should have submitted a cleanup plan by June 14, 2011, said Jeremy Nichols of WildEarth Guardians.

“Clean air delayed is clean air denied,” said Nichols, the group’s climate and energy program director. “Utah’s pro-pollution stance and continued foot-dragging is a recipe for disaster, both economically and environmentally. We need intervention from the EPA to ensure this mess is cleaned up, and we need it now.

In January, the Wasatch Front region — which includes Salt Lake City and surrounding counties — recorded PM 2.5 levels four times the federal health standard, reaching as high as 125 micrograms per cubic meter in Utah County. Fine particulates, which are emitted by power plants, boilers and motor vehicles, have been linked to respiratory and heart problems, including asthma and decreased lung function.

EPA said it is reviewing the latest suit.

Bryce Bird, director of the Utah Department of Environmental Quality’s Division of Air Quality, said the state is moving forward with plans to reach compliance in two outstanding nonattainment areas in the Wasatch Front. Plans were developed by September, which would have met the previously established deadlines, but had to be revised. Those plans are now expected in July, he said.

Bird noted that the state had begun crafting the implementation plans well before the January decision and so had no way of meeting the earlier deadlines. “Our goal is to develop a plan as quickly as possible to get us into compliance as quickly as possible,” Bird said, adding that the state is still seeking guidance from EPA about what submission and compliance deadlines it should follow.

Nichols said the suit focuses on Utah because it has some of the worst pollution from fine particulates and because WildEarth Guardians has resources there. But if successful, he said, it could compel EPA to address missed deadlines in other states that have failed to submit action plans.

Under the Clean Air Act, if EPA issues a “finding of failure to submit,” states have two years to either submit an implementation plan approved by EPA or the federal government must establish its own plan.

The suit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado, where EPA’s Region 8 office is headquartered.

Click here to read the suit.