Court Ruling Means Cleaner Air for Millions of Americans

This week we secured an important victory for public health when a federal court approved a timeline and framework for protecting Americans from an especially harmful type of air pollution. Sulfur dioxide pollution is a dangerous air pollutant -- so much so that even short-term exposure for as little as five minutes is associated with breathing problems like asthma attacks, particularly among vulnerable populations such as the elderly and asthmatics. And the medical community has established connections between chronic exposure and even more serious conditions, such as aggravation of cardiac conditions, hospitalization, and even premature death.

In the U.S. sulfur dioxide pollution comes overwhelmingly from coal-fired power plants. Some of the worst areas for this pollution are in Texas, Alabama, and across the Midwest, where massive, outdated coal plants still emit huge quantities of sulfur dioxide every year.

To help protect families from this harmful pollution, in 2010 the Environmental Protection Agency issued a new health-based air standard for sulfur dioxide. When fully implemented, the health standard is expected to prevent 2,300 to 5,900 premature deaths and 54,000 asthma attacks annually and save tens of billions of dollars from reduced hospital admissions, emergency room visits, work days lost due to illness, and cases of aggravated asthma and chronic bronchitis, among other benefits.

However, issuing and implementing the standard are two different things. The first step the EPA has to take is identifying which parts of the country suffer from unsafe air and which parts don't. Thus far, EPA has only identified a tiny fraction of the country -- just 29 areas comprising roughly 40 counties out of roughly 3,000 counties nationwide -- leaving the rest in limbo.

But thankfully that will end soon. This week the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California approved an important legal framework that serves as a big step toward providing relief for thousands of communities across the country now suffering from dangerous sulfur dioxide air pollution. The road map imposes deadlines for the EPA to identify areas that exceed the sulfur dioxide health standard.

The court's decision approves a settlement with the EPA in a lawsuit brought by Earthjustice on behalf of the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council under the federal Clean Air Act. The lawsuit cited analysis that estimates that potentially hundreds of counties across the country fail to meet this important public health measurement.

This week's court decision put the agency on an enforceable timeline to complete the process and fix air quality status for the entire rest of the country, focusing first on areas with some of the largest emitters of sulfur dioxide.

It is long overdue that the EPA put a road map in place to clean it up. Families -- especially those caring for loved ones with respiratory problems -- can breathe easier knowing that we are one step closer to cleaning up this dangerous coal plant pollution.

My colleague Zachary Fabish said it well: "This decision is a victory in the fight to protect the most vulnerable Americans from runaway air pollution. Major emitters of harmful sulfur dioxide, like the coal industry, must be held accountable for their pollution, and this helps ensure that they will be."

This is great news for air quality nationwide, and we look forward to seeing the standard finally implemented and steps taken to truly clean up the air in the most polluted areas and beyond.