Lawsuit Accuses EPA Of Not Doing Enough To Regulate Toxic Soot

CREDIT: AP Photo/Nick Ut

Smog over downtown Los Angeles.

An environmental advocacy organization launched a lawsuit against U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator Gina McCarthy on Monday, alleging the agency violated the Clean Air Act by failing to timely regulate soot emissions from some of America’s big cities.

The Center for Biological Diversity’s lawsuit, filed in California federal court, says the EPA is failing to make decisions on whether cities like Los Angeles, Milwaukee and Charleston have submitted adequate plans to reduce soot pollution. Soot — known formally as fine particulate matter — is “a black powdery or flaky substance consisting largely of amorphous carbon,” produced by the burning of coal, oil, wood, or other fuels.

The soot in question is called PM2.5, which is defined by the EPA as particles that are less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter. PM2.5 is “produced chiefly by combustion processes and by atmospheric reactions of various gaseous pollutants,” and includes emissions from “motor vehicles, power generation, combustion sources at industrial facilities, and residential fuel burning,” the lawsuit says.

PM2.5 has a “profound” effect on humans, and has been associated with “an array of health effects, notably premature mortality, increased respiratory symptoms and illnesses … and reduced lung function,” according to the suit, which asks the court to make McCarthy “perform her mandatory duties.”

Under the Clean Air Act, states are required to file so-called “state implementation plans” that lay out how, specifically, that state will meet federal air quality standards. After a plan is submitted, the EPA is required to determine whether it meets those standards.

According to the lawsuit, the EPA has failed to formally notify communities in California, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin that are overdue in submitting their plans for regulating PM2.5 emissions. The EPA has also failed to approve or reject the already-submitted plans of Los Angeles, Knoxville, Milwaukee, and Charleston, the lawsuit says.

“The Clean Air Act saves lives, protects wildlife and the places they live, and reduces haze from toxic soot pollution,” The Center’s staff attorney Jonathan Evans said in a statement. “We can only reduce the scourge of air pollution if the EPA and states follow a sound blueprint to clean up our skies.”

The EPA most recently updated soot regulations in 2012 when it strengthened the annual National Ambient Air Quality Standard for fine particles, reducing the amount allowed in the air from 15 micrograms per cubic meter to 12 micrograms per cubic meter. Non-profit environmental law firm Earthjustice in 2011 recommended an annual limit of 11 micrograms per cubic meter, saying the change would lead to economic benefits of $281 billion every year from reduced costs associated with premature death and disease caused by soot.

Environmental advocacy groups sue the EPA relatively frequently over alleged negligence of air and water quality rules. In October, seven states and Earthjustice filed two related lawsuits claiming the EPA did not update emissions standards for wood-burning boilers.

The boilers, which resemble outhouses with chimneys, are used to heat water that’s piped into a home’s radiator system, and they also emit soot.

A spokesperson for the EPA’s soot department said the agency is reviewing the lawsuit.

You can read CBD’s full lawsuit here.