WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Supreme Court gave a boost Monday to a federal clean air initiative aimed at forcing utilities to install pollution control equipment on aging coal-fired power plants.
In a unanimous decision, the justices ruled against Duke Energy Corp. in a lawsuit brought by the Clinton administration, part of a massive enforcement effort targeting more than a dozen utilities.
Most companies settled with the government, but several Clinton-era cases involving more than two dozen power plants in the South and the Midwest are still pending. The remaining suits demand fines for past pollution that if levied in full would run into billions of dollars.
The justices ruled that the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., overstepped its authority by implicitly invalidating Environmental Protection Agency regulations in a way that favored Duke. The case now returns to the lower courts.
The appeals court's decision "seems to us too far a stretch," Justice David Souter wrote.
The enforcement program is aimed at reducing power plant emissions of nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide that contribute to smog and acid rain. Sulfur dioxide is the leading cause of acid rain.
The utility industry has long resisted installing costly pollution controls under the program called New Source Review. It waged vigorous campaigns against the program starting in the 1980s and more recently by battling it out with regulators when sued in federal courts.