Attorney General Cuomo Announces Major Public Health Victory Against Weak Bush-era Air Pollution Standards

NEW YORK, NY (Feb 24, 2009) –Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo today announced that he and a coalition of 18 states and cities, led by New York, have won a major victory in a challenge of lax Bush Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) standards for fine soot pollution that had wholly failed to protect public health, particularly for children, elderly people and other vulnerable populations.

Fine soot pollution (also known as fine particulate matter pollution or “PM 2.5”) comes from diesel vehicles, power plants and other sources, and is prevalent in New York City and other urban areas.  Because fine soot can lodge deep in the lungs, as today’s decision notes, it can cause numerous harmful health effects, including premature death, chronic respiratory illness, decreased lung function, cardiovascular disease and asthma.  More than 100 million Americans (one-third of the nation’s population) have special susceptibility to harm from fine soot pollution, including children, senior citizens, and people with existing lung and heart diseases. Based on these impacts, EPA’s own scientists and scientific advisory committee recommended strict new standards for fine soot in 2005. However, the Bush Administration rejected their advice and chose a weaker, less protective standard. Today’s decision clears the path for the Obama Administration to issue new, stronger standards.

“In an epic victory for New York State and the entire country, my office has ensured that politics don’t come in the way of public health and environmental protection,” said Attorney General Cuomo. “The EPA is charged with protecting the environment, yet the Bush administration had misconstrued the purpose of this agency, using it as a tool to facilitate pollution instead of combating it. As a result of this victory, millions of New York residents will have a chance to breathe easier.  My office will work with the new Obama administration to make sure that new more protective soot standards are issued quickly.”

Today’s decision, issued by the federal Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, agreed with Cuomo and his coalition that the Bush EPA had acted illegally in issuing weak air pollution standards for fine soot, acting against the advice of EPA professional staff and EPA’s own scientific advisory committee.  The court found that the Bush EPA had also erred by not taking into account the special sensitivity to air pollution of children, elderly people and other vulnerable populations.  The Court remanded the standards to the new Obama EPA to issue new, more protective air pollution standards for fine soot that will better protect public health.

Large portions of New York State, including New York City and Long Island, have levels of fine soot pollution above the level recommended by EPA’s science advisory panel and rejected by the Bush EPA.  Seemingly small differences in air standards for air pollution can have substantial consequences for the public. Scientists in Cuomo’s Environmental Protection Bureau estimated in court papers filed in the case that strengthening the annual fine soot standard by just 1 to 2 micrograms per cubic meter (the measurement used by EPA to measure the level of soot in the air) could result in preventing hundreds of premature deaths just in the New York City area annually.  Stronger standards could also result in hundreds of millions of dollars saved in health care costs for New York as well.   

The states, cities and other state agencies joining Cuomo in the challenge that led to today’s victory are: California, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maine, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, Rhode Island, Vermont, the District of Columbia and the South Coast Air Quality Management District.  The States of Arizona, Maryland and Massachusetts also joined as friends of the court.

The suit is being handled by Assistant Attorney General Michael Myers, Assistant Solicitor General Denise Hartman, under the supervision of Solicitor General Barbara Underwood and Special Deputy Attorney General for Environmental Protection Katherine Kennedy, and with the assistance of Environmental Protection Bureau Chief Scientist Dr. Judith Schreiber.