Lawsuit Launched to Reduce Asthma-Causing Sulfur Dioxide Air Pollution in Detroit, Baltimore

WASHINGTON— Three conservation groups filed notice today of their intent to sue the Environmental Protection Agency for failing to ensure that parts of Maryland and Michigan have effective plans for cleaning up sulfur dioxide air pollution.

Areas affected by the EPA’s failures include Anne Arundel County and Baltimore County in Maryland, as well as parts of Metro Detroit in Michigan. These areas, which are home to more than 1.5 million people, have sulfur dioxide pollution at levels high enough to trigger ecological harm and human health problems.

“The EPA’s illegal delay in cleaning up this dangerous air pollution not only endangers the health of thousands of people but directly encourages the ongoing use of dirty coal and oil,” said Robert Ukeiley, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Illegal subsidies for fossil fuels are not going to get us the rapid transition to the clean energy economy that President Biden’s pledging.”

The Clean Air Act requires the EPA to identify and set national ambient air-quality standards to protect people and the environment from pollutants like sulfur oxides, which are mainly produced from the burning of fossil fuels like coal and oil.

Once the EPA determines an area’s air pollution exceeds the national standard, the law provides deadlines for the agency to ensure that states have valid plans in place to clean up that pollution, and for the agency to issue its own plan if the state falls down on its duty. In this case the EPA has missed those deadlines.

“Addressing SO2 pollution for me and my neighbors in Michigan’s most toxic environmental hotspot is long overdue,” said Dolores Leonard, a local resident and Sierra Club member. “Our community was supposed to achieve attainment with federal health standards by 2018, and yet we still await action from the state and EPA. This is a deep injustice, especially because our community is dealing with long-term exposure and cumulative impacts from numerous other pollution sources.”

Sulfur dioxide causes a range of public-health and environmental problems. It contributes to heart and lung diseases and is particularly threatening to children and the elderly; the EPA’s updated scientific studies show a link between sulfur dioxide pollution and developmental harm to children.

“The research is clear, sulfur dioxide pollution leads to significant adverse health effects,” said Kaya Sugerman, director of the Center for Environmental Health’s illegal toxic threats program. “The EPA is legally obligated to ensure that more people aren’t needlessly impacted by exposure to unsafe levels of this dangerous pollutant.”

Studies have also shown that air pollution results in worse outcomes for people who have COVID-19 and similar diseases. This adds to a growing body of evidence that people living in polluted areas are more likely to experience severe versions of COVID-19. Sulfur dioxide also contributes to acid rain and haze, damaging lakes, streams and ecosystems throughout the United States and decreasing visibility in national parks.

Other studies show that sulfur dioxide has significant effects on vegetation and wildlife, and that at current levels of exposure it can contribute to declines in biodiversity in terrestrial, freshwater, wetland and estuarine ecosystems in the United States.

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