Environmental Groups Sue EPA Over Dangerous Air Pollution from Aluminum Plant in Upstate New York

Litigation Aims to Force EPA and New York State to Quickly Create a Plan to Reduce Sulfur Dioxide from Alcoa Massena  

Washington, D.C. — Two environmental groups today filed a lawsuit against EPA for failing to require the State of New York to create a plan, as required by law, to reduce dangerous air pollution from a 122-year-old aluminum smelting plant in upstate New York. 

The goal of the lawsuit by the Environmental Integrity Project and Sierra Club is to cut sulfur dioxide emissions from the Alcoa Massena aluminum plant, which can cause lung damage and trigger asthma attacks, so that the state can meet federal air quality standards for the region.  

“We need aluminum for solar panels, wind turbines, and more efficient cars and planes, but these plants must install modern pollution controls and comply with clean air standards that protect downwind communities,” said Sanghyun Lee, attorney for the Environmental Integrity Project, which is representing the Sierra Club. “Regulators have been very slow to act on the Alcoa plant’s pollution, and this is not acceptable when public health is at risk.” 

“Because the hydroelectric powered Alcoa plant in Massena, NY, has so much potential to be one of the world’s greenest sources of refined aluminum, the EPA should work to make the facility a shining example—not allow it to violate air quality standards with substandard pollution controls,” said Roger Downs, conservation director, Sierra Club Atlantic Chapter. “The Sierra Club is pursuing this Clean Air Act challenge, not to close a polluting plant, but to ensure that the aluminum of the future serves our clean energy economy without harming its workforce or the surrounding community with asthma or other respiratory diseases.” 

In 2021, EPA designated a portion of St. Lawrence County, New York, near the Canadian border and downwind from the Alcoa plant, as being in nonattainment with the national ambient air quality standard for sulfur dioxide, which is a health-based standard designed to ensure sulfur dioxide emissions do not exceed those levels that are demonstrated to be harmful to human health. The Alcoa plant, located about four hours north of Albany near the Canadian border, is the main source of sulfur dioxide air pollution in the designated area. 

For areas like this that are failing air quality standards, the federal Clean Air Act requires a state to submit a plan within 18 months to show how the state will get back into attainment – often by requiring reductions from pollution sources. These deadlines are established to ensure that areas in nonattainment are brought back into attainment with the national ambient air quality standards as soon as possible. 

New York’s plan for cleaning up the air in St. Lawrence County was due on October 31, 2022, but it still has not submitted such a plan. EPA was required to follow up with the state by May 1, 2023, to force action, but has not. The deadline lawsuit against EPA is intended to require regulators to stop delaying and follow through with the Clean Air Act’s requirements. 

“EPA should remedy its violation of these mandatory duties to better protect the public from the harmful effects of sulfur dioxide,” states a letter sent by Sierra Club to EPA in December. “Exposure to SO2 in even very short time periods—such as five minutes—has significant health impacts, including decrements in lung function, aggravation of asthma, and respiratory and cardiovascular morbidity.” 

The 1902-built Alcoa Massena aluminum smelting plant lacks a basic pollution control system called a “scrubber” that has been commercially available for more than half of a century and is designed to remove sulfur dioxide before it rises from smokestacks. 

For a copy of the lawsuit, click here. 

The Environmental Integrity Project is a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting public health and our natural resources by holding polluters and government agencies accountable under the law, advocating for tough but fair environmental standards, and empowering communities fighting for clean air and clean water. 

Media contact:  

Tom Pelton, Environmental Integrity Project (443) 510-2564 or tpelton@environmentalintegrity.org 

Image: Wikimedia Commons, Alcoa Corporation Headquarters – Pittsburgh