Clearing the air

Supreme Court: Public health, not industry cost, is the rightful basis for anti-pollution regulation.

March 02, 2001

THE SUPREME Court has decisively affirmed the Clean Air Act and the Environmental Protection Agency's authority to enforce that fundamental 1970 law. EPA does not have to consider costs in setting standards necessary to protect public health, the court unanimously ruled Tuesday.

It was fitting that the nation's highest court decide this most important environmental issue, which underlies many regulatory decisions based on expert scientific judgment and on congressional delegation of authority.

But cost can be a factor for states in developing plans to implement those clean-air standards, under the law. And the court struck down EPA's policy for curbing smog in polluted metropolitan regions, saying it had set unreasonable deadlines for states to clean up their polluted air.

That means further effective delay in implementing the new EPA standards for soot and ozone -- smog -- in Maryland and other parts of the nation with unhealthy air affecting 125 million people.

The agency will now have to craft a new policy on how states must respond to the pollution standards. And Congress is likely to consider changes to the law that could include cost-benefit analysis as a factor in setting clean air standards.

Debate over the cost of meeting tougher clean-air standards continues, from industry's claim of $45 billion a year to the EPA estimate of $8 billion. Invariably, the actual expense of new environmental rules ends up at the lower end, as technology and society respond to the challenge. But short-term disruptions can be jarring.

Maryland is using many of the local strategies available to achieve cleaner air: auto exhaust testing, power plant and factory emissions cleanups, gas station tank controls. Greater effort will be needed, as much of the Baltimore-Washington area exceeds current air pollution limits.

The high court's temporary reprieve for Midwest smokestack polluters, whose dirty air blows into ours, is not encouraging. But the overall impact of the court decision was a victory for the environment and public health.

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