WASHINGTON (AP) â€” Nationwide clean-air standards are at stake in a major environmental case that asks the Supreme Court whether the government must consider compliance costs â€” and not just health benefits â€” in setting air-quality limits.
Industry groups are asking the justices to rule that the Environmental Protection Agency must weigh the cost of reducing harmful emissions against the benefits of improved air quality.
The Clinton administration argues that the EPA is not supposed to consider costs in setting the national air-quality standard. The government wants the justices to reverse a lower court ruling that said the EPA went too far in adopting tougher clean-air standards in 1997.
The case has ``profound implications for the health of the American public,'' government lawyers said in court papers. ``Congress did not intend EPA to base (air-quality standards) on consideration of any effects except those posed by the presence of the pollutant.''
But lawyers for the American Trucking Associations, U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other businesses contend the government must ``engage in a commonsense weighing of benefits and costs'' in setting the nationwide standard.
After hearing arguments Tuesday, the justices are expected to issue a ruling by July that could have a major impact on clean-air rules and possibly on regulatory actions by other federal agencies.
The Clean Air Act, adopted in 1970, requires the 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 effects on health.
In 1997, the EPA adopted air standards that imposed new limits on soot and ozone, a major component of smog. They were challenged by industry groups, and a federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., blocked the EPA from enforcing the rules in May 1999.
The appeals court said the EPA overstepped its authority by interpreting the Clean Air Act's 1990 amendments ``so loosely'' that it amounted to unlawful delegation of Congress' power. The court said the EPA's interpretation left it free to set almost any standard.
Nonetheless, the court rejected the industry groups' argument that the EPA should consider the cost of compliance in setting air-quality standards. The appeals court noted that it ruled in 1980 that the Clean Air Act bars the agency from doing so.
The industry groups appealed that portion of the appeals court's ruling, while the government appealed the part that blocked enforcement of the 1997 standard.
Not since 1935 has the Supreme Court thrown out federal regulations on grounds that Congress improperly handed an agency too much power.
Some observers believe that if the Supreme Court decided the 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. For example, federal law directs the Federal Communications Commission to regulate broadcasting in the ``public interest.''
Three states â€” Ohio, Michigan and West Virginia â€” joined the industry groups in the case, also supported by Virginia in a friend-of-the-court brief. Lining up on the federal government's side were Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, California, Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, North Carolina, Iowa, New Mexico and Washington state.
The cases are Browner v. American Trucking Associations, 99-1257, and American Trucking Associations v. Browner, 99-1426.
On the Net: For the appeals court ruling: http://www.uscourts.gov/links.html and click on District of Columbia Circuit.