WASHINGTON – Maryland should have no problem finishing a plan to reduce Washington-area air pollution, a state official said Wednesday, one day after a court said federal regulators should not have granted the state repeated extensions on the plan.
Assistant Attorney General Kathy Kinsey said that the state had more studies and paperwork to complete on its plan, but should be able to file it with the Environmental Protection Agency by April.
Her comments came one day after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit said the EPA should not have given Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C., more time to show how they planned to lower ozone pollution in the region, which was in “serious” violation of Clean Air Act standards.
Kinsey downplayed the practical effect of the ruling, but environmental groups that sued the EPA to force the change hailed the decision.
David Baron, the lawyer who represented the Sierra Club in the case, said the appeals court should prohibit the EPA from granting “bogus” extensions to areas that submit illegitimate or incomplete plans to clean up their air.
The Sierra Club had sued, charging that the EPA illegally ignored the Clean Air Act by letting the states and district violate clean-air deadlines for more than 10 years.
“What’s so galling about this case is that we’ve had to sue them (the EPA) three times now in a two year period, and we’ve won every time,” Baron said. “And instead of moving forward quickly to enforce clean-air requirements, they come up with new violations of the law to avoid doing their jobs.”
In 1991, the EPA gave all U.S. cities with “serious” ozone problems eight years to bring levels down to standard. But the Washington-region governments did not even file a plan for lowering ozone levels until 1997-98, the court said, and said that plan would not have achieved the required pollution levels until 2005.
In 2001, the EPA extended the deadline for the Washington area until 2005. Maryland counties included in the Washington-area “non-attainment region” include Frederick, Montgomery, Prince George’s, Calvert and Charles.
After the Sierra Club sued, and won, the EPA last year “bumped up” the classification of the Washington-region problem from serious to severe — which had the effect of giving the region until November 2005 to come in to compliance.
The EPA also granted conditional approval to the local governments’ plans to reach that level of compliance.
But the Sierra Club argued that the plans lacked specifics, required by law, on how and when the air-quality improvements would be achieved. The appeals court panel this week agreed, saying the EPA was wrong to “grant conditional approval to plans that did nothing more than promise to do tomorrow what the (Clean Air) Act requires today.”
The court did not give the EPA a deadline by which the states and the district had to submit a better plan to curb ozone levels. But Baron said an unspoken timeline of “a couple of years” exists.
What is certain, Baron said, is “that there will be stronger pollution control requirements” for the states.
An EPA spokeswoman said the agency would not comment until the decision has been fully reviewed. Officials with the Maryland Department of Environment could not be reached to comment Wednesday.
Environmental groups would like to see more state and federal money allotted to public transportation, as one way of reducing pollution in the region, said Jon Robinson, vice chair for the Maryland chapter of the Sierra Club.
The organization would also like to see California-style “clean-car legislation” in Maryland. Such laws require cleaner, specially formulated fuel to be sold at gas stations and cars with engine controls that reduce ozone-causing gases like nitrogen and carbon to be sold at dealerships. The change would only be “modestly more expensive,” said Robinson.
If the states do not come up with a feasible plan on their own, they could face the loss of federal funds for transportation projects, such as road construction and repair.
“And if they don’t,” Baron said, “we’ll have to file another lawsuit.”
-30- CNS 02-04-04