Threat to clean air standards

EPA: Agency must be allowed to set the rules based on its analysis of scientific data.

June 19, 1999

A FEDERAL appeals court has blocked efforts to reduce air pollution and make it safer for millions of Americans to breathe more easily. It's a curious decision that will surely be appealed again and, likely, won. It must be, if the nation is to effectively clean up our air.

The Environmental Protection Agency's plan to cut particulate (soot) emissions and smog-causing, ground-level ozone was not based on "intelligible principle," the panel of judges ruled. Congress could not delegate such broad authority to the agency, the judges said.

If allowed to stand, the decision could overturn 60 years of congressionally delegated authority, not just for clean air but for a host of other programs. While the court raised legitimate concerns about the limits to delegating of authority, the decision flies in the face of numerous rulings that uphold the principle.

The EPA was told to provide better justification for the new air quality standards, which would directly reduce health risks for the very young, the elderly and asthmatics. The federal agency relied on more than 200 studies in making its rules two years ago; but the EPA also saw significant revisions in study estimates and divided opinion within advisory panels on specific rules.

The agency should prepare a stronger case for its regulations, even if it cannot exactly define how much pollution is too much. A quarter-century of EPA rule-making may have emboldened regulators to stretch a bit far in interpreting the 1990 Clean Air Act this time.

Still, the campaign for a cleaner environment must not be derailed by twisted legalisms. Despite substantial progress, air pollution continues to plague the nation. That's why tough federal standards are necessary to improve the health of all citizens.

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