Our Opinion: ‘But for' clears the air

October 13, 2001

It is not often that anyone gets out of the clutches of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency once the federal super agency has set its all-encompassing eyes on you.

Such appears to be the case for the Imperial County, which has dodged a major bullet in the arena of dust particulate emissions.

The county somehow convinced the EPA that the county's dust problem actually lies south of the border in Mexico. As a result, the county, which had been considered a moderate nonattainment area for dust, or PM-10, has avoided being classified as serious nonattainment.

Such a classification would have required the county to implement a number of restrictive dust-emission measures that it is unlikely any new industry would have located in the Valley.


Ultimately, the EPA found that "the state of California has established to EPA's satisfaction that the Imperial Valley planning area, a PM-10 moderate nonattainment area, would have attained the national ambient air quality standards for particulate matter of 10 microns or less by the applicable Clean Air Act attainment date, Dec. 31, 1994, ‘but for' emissions emanating from outside the United State, i.e., Mexico," according to the Aug. 10 Federal Register.

Even more surprising is that the bullet the county dodged had the backing of the Sierra Club, which sued the EPA seeking to force the EPA into reclassifying the county as serious nonattainment. Now, the Sierra Club would deny that, alleging it only sued EPA to get the federal agency to come to a decision on the county's air, but in court documents the Sierra Club's Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund and its local members alleged the air quality in the Imperial Valley is quite poor.

Joining the Sierra Club in its efforts against the county was the local office of the American Lung Association.

In papers filed in federal district court for the District of Columbia, Earthjustice argued the severity and frequency of PM-10 violations in the Imperial Valley are among the most extreme in the nation. Earthjustice concedes some of the dust comes from Mexico but "the area would still violate the standards by a wide margin."

Much of the case against the county comes from dust measurements taken along the border. Those measurements reflect what's coming across the border but are seen as what's on this side. Clearly the data is not dependable.

Interestingly, the county easily meets the state's standards for dust emissions while all but two counties in the state fail the federal standard.

We know there's dust in the air because we can see it, but we believe the local air pollution control office is dealing with the situation and has recently introduced a complex plan for further dealing with it.

We'd like to see the situation taken care of at the local level by local officials who know the situation firsthand, rather than bureaucrats all the way across the country whose only information is that found on questionable data taken by measuring devices whose locations are also questionable.

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