Groups Sue EPA for Stronger Clean Air Protections

Lawsuit Presses Agency to Eliminate Clean Air Act Loopholes that Let Industry Off Hook for Endangering Public Health

WASHINGTON (Sept. 8, 2021) — NRDC (the Natural Resources Defense Council), together with Sierra Club and the Environmental Integrity Project, sued the Environmental Protection Agency today to force it to fulfill its Clean Air Act obligations and require states to close polluter loopholes in state plans under the Act.  Decades-old gaps in the law allow industry to evade responsibility for preventable harms that disproportionately affect communities of color and low income communities, and the agency has failed to act to close these loopholes. 

“The EPA has the power to close these loopholes and hold industry accountable and reduce hazards to protect communities like the one I grew up in,” said Yudith Nieto, Board Member, Coming Clean.

In the wake of Hurricane Ida, Gulf Coast petrochemical facilities and petroleum refineries are yet again spewing pollution, unchecked, through leaks, spills and flaring.  Incessant releases like these, of huge amounts of noxious gases, take place at many industrial facilities all over the country during startups, shutdowns and malfunctions, sometimes even surpassing facilities’ annual pollution limits.  

“These companies are not held accountable, and they are permitted to poison our neighbors during their most vulnerable moments,” Nieto said. 

Yet, existing Clean Air Act loopholes in many state plans allow industry to exceed their pollution limits with impunity and provide no checks on frequency, time or volume for these exceedances. For communities near these facilities, the cumulative impacts can be serious, increasing the risk of various cancers, respiratory ailments and other serious health problems.

“Fenceline communities are the first people to be impacted before, during and after SSM events,” Nieto added.  “When natural disasters strike, these communities have to worry about the plant exploding, air emissions, leaks and other accidents on top of concern from storm impacts and they often cannot evacuate their neighborhoods and must shelter in place.

“These events also have long term impacts on communities that often go unnoticed and are added to a lifetime of cumulative exposure to these chemicals including harm to future generations like reproductive health impacts and developmental delays on young children.”  


The lawsuit challenges the EPA for its failure to fully remove Startup, Shutdown and Malfunction (SSM) exemptions from State Implementation Plans (SIPs) required under the Clean Air Act.  A federal appeals court deemed these SSM loopholes illegal in 2008 and 2014 rulings, and in 2015 the Obama-Biden administration directed dozens of states to close them.  However, the Trump administration reversed much of this progress through industry-favorable administrative actions.

In May, over 100 community groups sent a letter to President Biden and EPA Administrator Michael Regan urging action and reminding them, respectively, of the administration’s promises to prioritize environmental justice:

“Mr. President, when you were running for office you promised to use the full force of your administration to tackle environmental injustice and the cumulative impacts faced by fenceline communities that have been forgotten and historically sacrificed by those in power.”

“Administrator Regan, we appreciate your vital, stated commitment to environmental justice and we call on you to follow through by taking swift, meaningful action to protect fenceline communities’ right to breathe clean air.”

The groups’ complaint is here.  The lawsuit seeks a court order compelling EPA to fulfill its neglected duties under the Clean Air Act to review and act on proposed revisions to remove unlawful SSM loopholes from state plans. 

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is an international nonprofit environmental organization with more than 3 million members and online activists. Since 1970, our lawyers, scientists, and environmental specialists have worked to protect the world's natural resources, public health, and the environment. NRDC has offices in New York City; Washington, D.C.; Los Angeles; San Francisco; Chicago; Bozeman, Montana; and Beijing. Visit us at and follow us on Twitter @NRDC

The Sierra Club is America’s largest and most influential grassroots environmental organization, with more than 3.5 million members and supporters. In addition to protecting every person's right to get outdoors and access the healing power of nature, the Sierra Club works to promote clean energy, safeguard the health of our communities, protect wildlife, and preserve our remaining wild places through grassroots activism, public education, lobbying, and legal action. For more information, visit

The Environmental Integrity Project is a 19-year-old nonprofit organization, based in Washington DC and Austin, Texas, that is dedicated to enforcing environmental laws and strengthening policy to protect public health and the environment. For more information, visit

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