Supreme Court to rule on constitutionality of EPA clean-air rules

Regulations would greatly reduce human exposure to ground-level ozone

May 23, 2000|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The government's authority to cut back on two high-risk types of air pollution - smog and soot - has been stymied for months by legal doubt, and yesterday the Supreme Court stepped in to resolve the issue.

In a brief order, the court said it would rule within the next year on the constitutionality of federal Clean Air Act regulations that would sharply reduce human exposure to ground-level ozone, a major component of smog, and to fine particles of soot.

Those rules, issued by the Environmental Protection Agency, were struck down by a federal appeals court 17 months ago. The EPA said that ruling stripped it of much of its ability to implement the Clean Air Act.

The agency issued the rulings on the basis of what it said was new evidence that those two forms of pollution pose a more serious hazard to people than had been previously thought. It considers the smog and soot pollutants to be causes of the kind of dirty air that, in summer months, leads to "red alerts" because of the threat to human lungs.

Though the EPA said there might be reason to cut to zero the amount of exposure to smog and soot it should permit for people, it did not go that far. But it sought to put tighter limits on exposure by reducing the amount allowed and by requiring the improved air quality to be maintained for an eight-hour period instead of the former one-hour period. If a community cannot meet the eight-hour standard, it would have to take steps to do so.

Prolonged exposure, the agency found, poses a significantly greater health hazard.

Court of Appeals ruling

The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia nullified only the 1997 regulations, but the court's ruling was a sweeping denunciation of the EPA for claiming more power than Congress had given it to police air quality.

Appealing to the Supreme Court, the Justice Department said the appeals court ruling "presents an issue of immense practical importance to the health of the American public." It accused the appeals court of making a "radical departure" from Supreme Court rulings on when Congress' legislative power has been unconstitutionally delegated to a government agency.

The Supreme Court, the Justice Department appeal said, has upheld far broader grants of authority than the one in the Clean Air Act at issue in the dispute.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, commenting on the court's agreement to hear the case, said that "once and for all, the Supreme Court can put an end to EPA's unconstitutional attempt to extend their regulatory power."

The American Lung Association said, however, that the EPA had ample authority to interpret the Clean Air Act as it did. The standards the EPA fashioned, the lung association said, "are essential to protecting the health of millions of Americans, especially children, the elderly and those with lung and heart disease."

In agreeing to hear the EPA's appeal, the justices took no action on five separate appeals by states, health advocacy groups, and business organizations. Those groups had raised a variety of issues about EPA authority to set standards for air quality.

Thus, the coming ruling appears likely to be confined to the constitutional issue of the EPA's authority to interpret the Clean Air Act broadly enough to gain wide discretion in setting air quality standards.

Corps of Engineers case

The justices also agreed to hear another environmental dispute yesterday, to clarify the authority of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to limit development that would affect migratory birds in the nation's wetlands.

The court will rule on a dispute growing out of an attempt to build a solid-waste landfill outside Chicago on the site of an abandoned strip mine that has been filled with water and serves as a resting and nesting area for migratory birds.

The Corps of Engineers claims authority because of the seasonal presence of the birds. Without birds, the water at the site would not be within the Corps' usual jurisdiction.

A federal appeals court upheld the Corps' authority, and 23 Illinois municipalities took the issue to the Supreme Court.

A ruling in the case is expected in the court's next term, which begins in October.

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