Environmental Groups Seek Court Order Against EPA on Houston Smog

WASHINGTON (November 21, 2001) - A coalition of environmental groups today asked a federal judge to order the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to comply with an earlier settlement requiring the agency to produce a plan for cleaning up the smog plaguing Houston and Galveston, Texas.

"Four million Texans are waiting for EPA to explain what it is doing to ensure they have breathable air," said Jim Marston, a Texas attorney with Environmental Defense, one of the plaintiffs bringing the motion in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. "We settled a lawsuit with EPA last year over this issue. EPA agreed to come forward with a plan, but the agency hasn't delivered."

The two other groups seeking the new court order are NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) and the Sierra Club. The case will be heard by U.S. District Judge Coleen Kollar-Kotelly.

Houston, Galveston and their surrounding counties suffer from one of the most severe smog problems in the country. The area set last year's national record for the highest reading of smog -- technically called ground-level ozone -- and exceeded the federal ozone standard more often than any other region.

These high levels pose a threat to area residents. EPA officials and other health experts say that inhaling even low levels of ozone causes a variety of respiratory problems, including chest pains, coughing, nausea and throat irritation. Ozone also can aggravate bronchitis and asthma, and reduce children's lung capacity.

A consent decree reached with the same environmental groups last year required EPA to issue a plan by October 15 demonstrating how the Houston-Galveston area would meet the national ozone standard by the 2007 deadline set by the Clean Air Act. The agency had the choice of approving a plan submitted by Texas state authorities, or producing a plan of its own. In either case, the decree required that the plan spell out how Texas was going to make all of the pollution reductions needed to bring the Houston-Galveston area into line with the federal ozone standard.

EPA did approve a Texas plan on October 15, but that plan fails to spell out how all of the necessary pollution reductions will be achieved. "EPA signed off on a plan that its own calculations show to be 56 tons per day short of the necessary pollution reductions," said David McIntosh, an NRDC attorney. "That equals more than 40 million pounds per year of excess, illegal pollution in the Houston-Galveston air."

NRDC, Environmental Defense and Sierra Club maintain that the shortfall in emission reductions means that the Texas plan fails to relieve EPA of its obligation to devise a federal plan. Frank Blake, chair of the Sierra Club's Houston group, is dismayed by EPA's inaction. "Houston did not become one of the smoggiest cities in this country by accident," he said. "The latest plan reflects the chronic inability of state and federal agencies to take bold steps and give our families healthy air."

"At the very least," added Howard Fox of Earthjustice, an attorney representing the Sierra Club, "the consent decree requires EPA to propose enough smog control measures to fill the gap in the Texas plan."

The Natural Resources Defense Council is a national, non-profit organization of scientists, lawyers and environmental specialists dedicated to protecting public health and the environment. Founded in 1970, NRDC has more than 500,000 members nationwide, served from offices in New York, Washington, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Environmental Defense, a leading national nonprofit organization based in New York, represents more than 300,000 members. Since 1967 Environmental Defense has linked science, economics, and law to create innovative, equitable, and cost-effective solutions to the most urgent environmental problems.

The Sierra Club is a nonprofit organization with over 700,000 members nationwide, approximately 24,000 of whom reside in Texas. The Sierra Club is dedicated to exploring, enjoying and protecting the wild places of the Earth; to practicing and promoting the responsible use of the Earth's resources and ecosystems; to educating and enlisting humanity to protect and restore the quality of the natural and human environment; and to using all lawful means to carry out these objectives.

Earthjustice is a nonprofit public interest law firm dedicated to protecting the magnificent places, natural resources, and wildlife of this earth and to defending the right of all people to a healthy environment. We bring about far-reaching change by enforcing and strengthening environmental laws on behalf of hundreds of organizations and communities.