Court: D.C. has to come clean

The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday that a six-year extension given to the Washington, D.C., area in 1999 to come into compliance with Clean Air Act standards violated the Act because the region was not reclassified to “severe” nonattainment status.

Areas that did not attain air quality standards by Nov. 15, 1999, were supposed to be reclassified to “severe” status — slapping on additional monitoring and incremental deadlines. The region kept its “serious” status because the Environmental Protection Agency cited impacts of transported pollution from other communities for which the region was not responsible, the EPA argued.

The Sierra Club had filed the suit against the EPA. The court, in a 10-page decision, ruled that the EPA had no power to override the explicit requirements of the statute.

The decision is clear and will probably not be appealed, said Ron Kirby, director of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. “It’s now really up to the EPA on how they are going to react to this.”

The EPA could change the region’s classification to “severe.”

The region could be forced to take additional steps to reduce emissions, something it has already been doing since 1999.

For the current fiscal year, the council’s transportation planning board found three emission reduction measures for Northern Virginia that will remove more than a ton of harmful oxides of nitrogen (NOX) a day. Most of the reduction in pollutants came after road projects were cut from Virginia’s six-year plan, so the board did not have to turn to more expensive measures, Kirby said.

For example, if Virginia were to spend $2.28 million for extra police to monitor traffic, the resulting reduction in speeding motorists would reduce daily pollutants by half a ton, according to a draft plan from the council.

But that strategy and others not yet tried will cost more than cheaper plans already implemented, like telecommuting programs.

“Each new idea is more expensive. Again, at this point, we don’t know what the targets are in terms of the tonnage [of pollutants]. That’s some of the things we will be waiting on from the EPA,” said Pierce Homer, state deputy transportation secretary. “I think at the end of the day, we are going to work with localities … and solve the problem. It is going to take more resources.”

Gov. Mark R. Warner in a statement Tuesday used the news to push for the half-cent sales tax referendum for $5 billion in transportation projects.

“This decision underscores the importance of the opportunity Northern Virginians have this fall to dedicate significant new resources for HOV lanes, mass transit, rail and other transportation projects that will help mitigate congestion and improve air quality in the region,” he said.

The court ruled the EPA should not have waived requirements for the region to incrementally reduce emissions by 3 percent a year after 1999.

Even without those requirements, the region has reduced emissions by roughly 3 percent a year anyway, Kirby said.

“A lot of what we’d have to do we’ve already done,” he said. “Attainment is attainment whether you are serious or severe.”

Air standards aim at reducing oxides of nitrogen and volatile organic compounds, which interact in sunlight to form ground level ozone.

David Baron of Earthjustice represented the Sierra Club, arguing the extension had hurt the health of area residents by allowing ozone levels to continue to rise.

“We have become accustomed to turning on the news to reports of dangerous ozone levels and warnings to keep our children indoors. That is simply unacceptable for the capital of our country, or for anyplace else in the United States,” Baron said in a statement.

Staff writer Chris Newman can be reached at (703) 878-8062.

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