Sunland Park, Environmental Advocates Sue EPA over El Paso Smog Designation

Aug 30, 2018

The quality of the air we breathe can significantly impact our health in both the short and long-term. The Environmental Protection Agency said the two pollutants which pose the greatest risk to human health in the U.S. are ground-level ozone, or smog, and particulate matter.

Ozone can irritate respiratory systems and cause symptoms including coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath as well as trigger asthma attacks. Likewise, particulate matter is made up of tiny solid or liquid particles like dust and exhaust that can get trapped in the lungs and cause serious health issues.

New Mexico State University Plant and Environmental Sciences Professor and State Climatologist Dave DuBois said New Mexico’s air quality is pretty good compared to states like Texas or California but varies depending on the season.

“During the spring, we have high winds. Because of the high winds and droughts, we get lots of dust which is bad for your lungs, which is bad air quality. So that’s the particulate matter in the springtime,” DuBois said. “In the summer we get ozone and that’s a gas. So that’s O3 and that’s also bad for your lungs and during the summertime, we can get both.”

During the Obama administration, the EPA tightened its National Ambient Air Quality Standards for ground-level ozone from 75 parts per billion in 2008 to 70 parts per billion in 2015. That required the EPA to study air quality data nationwide to determine which areas had unsafe levels of ozone.

Regionally, the City of Sunland Park, the Sierra Club and Familias Unidas del Chamizal, a grassroots advocacy group in El Paso are suing the EPA for listing Sunland Park in June as having unsafe levels of smog while rating El Paso as safe.

Attorney David Baake represents the case. Baake said pollution monitors at The University of Texas at El Paso have reported unsafe levels of smog for the past three years and that Sunland Park monitors about a mile from the Texas border measure the same air. He argued the EPA violated the Clean Air Act by failing to classify El Paso with Sunland Park as non-attainment areas.

The view from The University of Texas at El Paso overlooking Interstate 10 into Ciudad Juárez.
Credit Michael Hernandez

“It did not accord with the data which shows that the air in this region is not safe, that we have elevated levels of ozone and it’s harming people’s health and our community,” Baake said. “We want to make sure that the EPA faithfully complies with the Clean Air Act and that we start taking steps to clean up, clean up the air in our community so that we can protect the health of everyone who’s affected by air pollution, particularly children and the elderly and people who work outside. But everyone can be affected by these issues.”

Chamizal Member Hilda Villegas said the group joined the lawsuit because it’s concerned how industry in the community is affecting the neighborhood’s health.

“More than anything, I want justice for my daughter, that throughout this year she’s been exposed to these different sources of pollution and really very little has been done to help ensure that her health is not being jeopardized,” Villegas said.

Villegas said most of the pollution in the Chamizal area stems from traffic at the city’s ports of entry, Interstate 10 and a neighborhood railroad. Baake said the EPA analyzed how much of the pollution is actually from El Paso rather than from across the border.

“And so EPA’s analysis showed that in this area, about 25 percent of the pollution that causes smog is from El Paso. About 50 percent is from Juarez which makes sense because Juarez has twice the population so it’s not actually, a lot of people think that ‘Oh, it’s all Juarez’s fault. It’s so disproportional.’ It’s actually pretty proportional to their population,” Baake said.

The Trump administration is working to roll back environmental standards as it moves to replace the Clean Power Plan and instead let states decide how to regulate emissions from coal-powered plants. But that plan doesn’t take into account pollution that crosses state lines or even borders. DuBois said no matter one’s politics, cleaner air benefits everyone.

“Pollution doesn't obey any barriers or walls, you know,” DuBois said. “It goes right across the international lines and even goes across oceans. So we're dealing with cross-boundary, cross-continental problems. If you live in Texas you get Saharan dust, if you live in the Pacific Northwest you get Asian pollution. So we share the same air regardless of whatever your political stand is.”

Baake said he expects the lawsuit to overturn El Paso’s designation will take a year to resolve. If successful, he said that means the two cities will have to work together to reduce smog emissions.