Smog and Soot Rules Clear Final Legal Hurdle
By Cat Lazaroff
WASHINGTON, DC, March 27, 2002 (ENS) - A federal appeals court has dismissed the final challenges to a 1997 clean air rule aimed at reducing smog and soot pollution throughout the nation. Conservation groups and the Bush administration are hailing the decision, handed down Tuesday, as a major victory for those who support the government's right to protect public health and the environment over business interests.
Now, the agency says it can move forward with implementing and enforcing the new standards, which are intended to protect Americans from health problems such as respiratory illnesses and premature death cause by air pollution.
"Today's unanimous decision is a significant victory in EPA's ongoing efforts to protect the health of millions of Americans from the dangers of air pollution," said EPA Administrator Christie Whitman. "EPA now has a clear path to move forward to ensure that all Americans can breathe cleaner air."
With a unanimous vote, the appeals court rejected the claim that the EPA acted arbitrarily in setting the national ambient air quality standards. The three judge panel found that EPA "engaged in reasoned decision making" in establishing pollutant levels to protect public health and the environment.
Fine particles include airborne soot from sources such as diesel trucks and power plants. Smog is caused by emissions from cars, power plants, chemical plants, petroleum refineries and a variety of other sources.
The EPA's new standards were challenged by the American Trucking Association, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other state and business groups. A three judge panel from the same court initially set the standards aside on constitutional grounds.
But in February 2001, the Supreme Court overturned that decision, and upheld the EPA's authority under the Clean Air Act to set national air quality standards that protect the American public from air pollution. The Supreme Court also unanimously rejected an industry argument that the EPA should have based the standards on a cost benefit analysis, rather than on the impact of pollution on public health.
The Supreme Court returned the case to the appeals court for any further action. Tuesday's decision rejected the remaining claims that the EPA's decision was arbitrary and capricious and not supported by scientific evidence.
The EPA said Tuesday it is now moving ahead, in partnership with state and local governments, to develop programs to meet the new smog and soot standards.
Two issues remain for the agency to resolve. First, the Supreme Court, though finding no fault with the standards themselves, ordered the EPA to reexamine its proposed approach for implementing them.
Second, the DC Circuit in 1999 ordered the EPA to consider industry claims that smog allegedly helps human health by screening ultraviolet rays. The EPA's proposed response argues that such alleged benefits are speculative and do not warrant weakening the 1997 ozone standard.
The agency has not yet proposed any response to the implementation issue.
When the EPA issued the standards in 1997, it estimated that when implemented the standards would protect 125 million Americans from adverse health effects of air pollution and each year would prevent 15,000 premature deaths, 350,000 cases of aggravated asthma, and one million cases of decreased lung function in children.
Since then, a body of scientific research has strengthened the medical basis for the standards. On March 6, 2002, the Journal of the American Medical Association published a study of 500,000 people across the country finding that prolonged exposure to air contaminated with fine particles raises the risk of dying of lung cancer or other heart and lung diseases.
Other recent studies have linked ozone with increased risk of birth defects and of asthma in children, and have suggested that exposure to particulates and ozone increases the risk of stroke in adults. A study of the 90 largest U.S. cities found strong evidence linking daily increases in soot to increases in daily death rates, and in hospital admissions of the elderly.
The DC Circuit Court's decision is available at: http://pacer.cadc.uscourts.gov/common/opinions/200203/97-1440c.txt