Officials, Groups Seek to Settle Clean Air Suit

Federal officials met with local and state environmental groups last week in an effort to settle a lawsuit that accuses the government of endangering millions of people in Dallas-Fort Worth by failing to take action to clean the air.

Jan. 25—Federal officials met with local and state environmental groups last week in an effort to settle a lawsuit that accuses the government of endangering millions of people in Dallas-Fort Worth by failing to take action to clean the air.

The meeting, which included representatives of the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Justice and local environmentalists, was the first to discuss settling the lawsuit filed on Oct. 6 in U.S. District Court in Dallas.

The lawsuit claims that the EPA has missed numerous deadlines to lower ozone in the Metroplex, "thereby depriving the people of Texas ... of clean and healthy air."

All sides said they were encouraged but declined to discuss details of the meeting, which was held Thursday in Dallas.

"We are hopeful that this can be used to reinstitute what we consider to be a stalled process of air-quality planning in the region," said Marc Chytilo, a Santa Barbara, Calif., lawyer representing the environmental groups.

EPA spokesman Dave Bary said, "I would characterize the meeting as very positive and successful, and we hope through our efforts to reach a settlement and avoid litigation."

The Dallas-Fort Worth region has until 2010 to comply with tough new federal ozone standards or face severe sanctions, including the possible loss of tens of millions in highway transportation dollars.

As state regulators continue to work on computer models designed to identify specific sources of ozone-forming pollution, regional air-quality planning efforts have slowed. The North Texas Clean Air Steering Committee, a group of elected officials, environmentalists and business leaders that has coordinated regional planning, has not met since the lawsuit was filed.

"Until we can negotiate this 1/8settlement3/8, we're sort of at a standstill," said Mike Eastland, executive director of the North Central Texas Council of Governments, a regional planning group.

Eastland, who attended last week's meeting, acknowledged that if the lawsuit is not settled and a long court fight ensues, bringing the region into compliance could be more difficult.

"We're certainly trying to guard against that happening because we've all got to be part of the solution," he said.

Even before the lawsuit was filed, the relationship between federal regulators and environmentalists was tense.

The environmental groups had been threatening since December 2003 to file the lawsuit but held off in hopes that the two sides would work together to improve air quality. In January 2004, clean-air activists, elected leaders and government regulators stood side-by-side at a ceremony at Dallas/Fort Worth Airport and announced a new spirit of cooperation.

But environmentalists were angered last summer by a state decision to delay by as long as three years the completion of a federally mandated, comprehensive plan to lower Metroplex ozone — a major health concern linked to asthma and other lung diseases.

The 19-page lawsuit accuses the EPA of failing to punish the state after it missed deadlines to improve local air quality.

The EPA in 1991 classified the Metroplex as violating ozone standards and gave it until November 1996 to comply. It did not, and the region was ordered to comply by November 1999, according to the lawsuit.

That deadline was also not met, requiring the EPA to reclassify the area as a "severe" ozone violator.

The EPA, however, did not reclassify the region, and it did not mandate that the state and the Dallas-Fort Worth region develop a plan to clean the air. No formal cleanup plan has ever been finalized, and as a result, environmental groups say, there have been no meaningful improvements in local air quality.

Larry Soward, a commissioner with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality who attended the meeting in Dallas, said the state will work with the EPA and environmentalists "to find a positive resolution to this lawsuit."


—Ground-level ozone is regulated by the federal government because it is a health concern.

—At high concentrations, it can trigger asthma attacks, stunt lung development in children and aggravate the conditions of those suffering from bronchitis, emphysema and other respiratory problems.

—Ozone, the main ingredient in smog, needs an abundance of sunlight and heat to form, which is why ozone season in Texas runs from the spring through summer. It is produced when nitrogen oxides from automobile tailpipes and industry smokestacks mix in the sunlight and heat with volatile organic compounds, a group of pollutants originating from automobile emissions, smokestacks and even trees as part of photosynthesis.

—More than 170 million people live in more than 470 counties nationwide that the federal government estimates have dirty air.

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© 2005, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Texas. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.