Commentary: In 2015, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency revised the national ambient air quality standard for smog, a dangerous air pollutant that contributes to serious health problems such as asthma attacks, heart attacks, and premature deaths. Having done so, EPA was required to study air quality data from across the United States to determine which areas were experiencing unsafe levels of smog.
Given that El Paso has repeatedly appeared on the American Lung Association’s list of most polluted cities in the United States, you might think it would be a shoo-in for EPA’s list. But to the surprise of many experts, EPA decided in June that El Paso was not experiencing unsafe levels of smog. True, the air quality monitor at UTEP reported violations of the smog standard in 2015, 2016, and 2017. But EPA decided to exclude the violation that occurred on June 21, 2015, claiming that this violation was caused by a wildfire in Arizona and not by local polluters. By massaging the data in this way, EPA was able to conclude that El Paso just met the new smog standard.
Although EPA decided that El Paso’s air was safe, it recognized that the air in neighboring Sunland Park, New Mexico was not. Treating El Paso and Sunland Park differently makes no sense, as the air quality monitor in Sunland Park is located just over a mile from the El Paso border. The fact that EPA reached a different conclusion for El Paso and Sunland Park is proof that its decisions were driven by politics—not science.
Of course, the air in El Paso is not actually safe. Rather than trying to sweep the problem under the rug, EPA should be doing something about it. The agency’s failure to act will harm individuals in our community—particularly, children, seniors, and individuals with respiratory conditions, who are most sensitive to smog pollution.
Thankfully, a diverse coalition has come together to fight back. The City of Sunland Park, Familias Unidas del Chamizal, and Sierra Club announced today that they were suing EPA to force it to list El Paso’s smog levels as unsafe. This would require the State of Texas and EPA to develop new pollution control measures for El Paso County. (Contrary to what many people think, not all of the pollution affecting our region comes from Juarez. Although our southern neighbor emits about twice as much smog-forming pollution as El Paso, El Paso’s refineries, power plants, and vehicles are still responsible for tens of thousands of tons of pollution every year).
Each member of our coalition brings a different perspective to this fight. The City of Sunland Park feels unfairly singled out by EPA’s decision, and is concerned that the decision could give El Paso an unfair advantage in attracting new business. The members of Familias Unidas, an environmental justice group located in El Paso’s
Chamizal neighborhood, know from our own experiences that the air in El Paso is not safe. We want to put pressure on Texas to limit emissions for refineries, diesel trucks, and other polluters that operate in or around our neighborhood. Sierra Club brings a national perspective to the table. It has fought many of the Trump Administration’s misguided attempts to weaken environmental safeguards. And having spent decades fighting alongside communities affected by air pollution, it understands the human cost of the problem and the opportunities that exist for cleaning up pollution while growing the economy at the same time.
If we prevail in our lawsuit, we may be able to save dozens of lives in our region while accelerating the transition to a clean-energy economy. Once that happens, we can all breathe a little easier.
Submitted by: Hilda Villegas, founder of Familias Unidas del Chamizal and David Baake, who represents the petitioners in City of Sunland Park, et al. v. EPA.