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Court Orders EPA to address air pollution in El Paso and Southern New Mexico

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Commentary: On Friday, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to take a closer look at whether El Paso is violating the public health standard for ozone (smog) pollution. The Court’s order will also require EPA to examine evidence that El Paso’s emissions contribute to ozone problems in southern New Mexico. 

The court issued its decision in response to a petition filed in 2018 by Familias Unidas del Chamizal, the Sierra Club, and the City of Sunland Park, NM, after hearing oral argument in November 2019.

 

David Baake, who represented the petitioners, said the Court’s ruling was an important step toward cleaning up the air in greater El Paso. “People who live in the El Paso area know that our air is not safe. Last year, we had seven days where ozone levels reached dangerous levels in our community; we’ve already had four violations this year and ozone season is just getting underway. Given these facts, EPA will have no choice but to designate El Paso as violating the Clean Air standard.”

According to Baake, once EPA makes such a finding, it will trigger a requirement for the state of Texas to develop a plan to reduce pollution. Such a plan might include a requirement for major polluters like the Marathon Petroleum Refinery and El Paso Electric to install additional emission controls.

Hilda Villegas, a member of Familias Unidas del Chamizal, applauded the court’s decision and called on regulators to pay attention to the needs of environmental justice communities in moving forward with regulation. “Air pollution disproportionally hurts marginalized communities. The Chamizal neighborhood, which is predominantly low-income and Hispanic, experiences some of the worst air pollution in El Paso. Our kids have trouble breathing when they go outside to exercise. People get respiratory infections and have to call in sick at work.  Particularly now that we are facing the COVID-19 pandemic, we need our community leaders to fight for clean air and a more sustainable future.”

Miguel Escoto, a researcher for the petitioners and separately an organizer for the El Paso Chapter of the Sunrise Movement, said researchers at New York University and the American Thoracic Society have shown that ozone pollution is a major health problem in El Paso. “The research shows that ozone pollution causes about 13 premature deaths, 42 emergency-room visits, and over 46,000 missed work or school days in El Paso, every year. It is unacceptable that we continue to sicken our communities with this pollution. It’s time to phase out fossil fuels and embrace clean alternatives, like solar power, public transportation, and electric vehicles.”

Laurence Gibson, Chair of the El Paso Group of the Sierra Club, applauded the Court’s decision as a victory in the fight against the climate crisis.  “Right now, the southwest is experiencing massive wildfires and a record-shattering heatwave.  The climate crisis is a huge threat to those of us who live in the borderlands.  This decision will help us hold big polluters accountable and get our region on track for a future of 100% clean energy."

Baake said it was unclear when EPA would begin implementing the Court’s order, but that the court required the agency to act “as expeditiously as practicable.” The Sierra Club and Familias Unidas del Chamizal will continue to push for stronger protections against dangerous air pollution, he added.