Supreme Court justices began hearing arguments Tuesday in a major clean-air case about requiring the government to consider compliance costs, along with health benefits, in setting air quality limits.
The Clean Air Act requires EPA to adopt national air quality standards to "protect the public health." The agency is to use criteria that "accurately reflect the latest scientific knowledge" for identifying pollution''s effect on health.
In 1997, EPA adopted air standards that imposed new limits on soot and ozone, a major contributor to smog.
They were challenged by industry groups, including the American Trucking Association (ATA), and a federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., blocked EPA from enforcing the rules in May 1999.
The appeals court last year did not reject the science underlying the new clean air rules, but questioned the process by which the standards were written.
ATA now wants federal regulators to consider the cost of imposing tougher standards on industry.
A lawyer for the ATA and other industry groups asked the justice yesterday to rule that the federal Clean Air Act requires EPA to weigh the cost of reducing harmful emissions against the benefits of improved air quality.
"This agency wishes to regulate every nook and cranny of this environment for air pollution reasons without a clear standard for doing so," said Ed Warren, representing ATA, U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business groups.
Solicitor General Seth Waxman, who is arguing the case for the government, said Congress in 1970 decided air pollution standards should be based on the effects of public health and welfare, not based on a cost-benefit approach.
Waxman asked the justices to reverse the lower court ruling that said EPA went too far in adopting tougher clean air standards in 1997.
After hearing the arguments in the case, several of the Supreme Court justices expressed doubts about making EPA consider compliance costs in setting air quality limits.
Justice John Paul Stevens said Warren, the lawyer representing the industry groups, appeared to be seeking a rule that EPA must set air quality standards "to protect the public health, provided it doesn''t cost too much."
Justice Sandra Day O''Connor told Warren, "I''ve listened to a lot of vague language from you and I don''t understand what it is that you''re saying."
The justices are expected to issue a ruling by July that could have a major impact on clean air rules.
Some observers believe that if the Supreme Court decided EPA took too much of Congress'' power when it set the clean air rules, it could affect the regulatory power of other federal agencies with broad congressional mandates.
by Virginia Sutcliffe