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WildEarth Guardians

Enviro group sues EPA to list Tucson among air quality danger zones

The Environmental Protection Agency isn’t doing enough to protect us from dusty skies, which might sound harmless, but can cause or exacerbate a raft of illnesses from asthma to premature death, according to a lawsuit from a New Mexico environmentalist group.

WildEarth Guardians, a nonprofit created in 1989 to protect wolves, sued the EPA to designate Tucson and 14 other places in eight states across the West as “nonattainment areas.” The EPA is supposed to label non-attainment areas when regular monitoring shows a pattern of air-quality exceeding standards for particulate matter, or dust.

“We need the EPA to step up and put these areas on a path to cleanup,” said Jeremy Nichols, Climate and Energy Program director for the nonprofit. “These dusty skies are not only dangerous, they’re a sign that air quality throughout the West is at risk. We need relief.”

The suit comes as a TucsonSentinel.com investigation finds that the EPA is inconsistent in tracking and punishing pollution violators in Arizona.

An EPA monitor just west of Tucson International Airport, near Interstate 19, showed the air exceeded dust standards from 2008-10, the lawsuit says.

Dust is not as harmless as you might think. Small particles — less than 10 microns across, or less than a fifth the thickness of a human hair — can get deep into your lungs.

“Numerous scientific studies have linked particle pollution exposure to a variety of problems,” the EPA says on its website.

The particles can decrease lung function, aggravate asthma and cause bronchitis and heart attacks. Dust can lead to premature death in people with heart or lung disease.

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WildEarth Guardians wants all of Tucson, Yuma, Douglas and Nogales designated as non-attainment areas. Other areas where standards were violated include Durango and Grand Junction, Colo.; Deming and Las Cruces, N.M.; Salt Lake City; and Tulsa, Okla.

Problems vary among the targeted communities. Blowing dust, power plants, mining, oil refineries and industrial boilers are named as sources.

“These sources—whether they be coal-fired power plants or dusty roads—need to be reined in.  It’s time for clean air to come first in these areas,” Nichols said.

WildEarth Guardians filed the lawsuit Oct. 26.

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Poisoned Places

TucsonSentinel.com reported on the Clean Air Act watch list with support from the Center for Public Integrity.

Read more about the "Poisoned Places" project, including reports and videos from CPI's iWatch News and NPR, and localized reporting by Investigate West and the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting.