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California and the West

Supreme Court to Decide Fate of Clinton's Anti-Smog Plan

Ecology: Panel decides to hear case next year on proposal to force a 10% reduction in air pollution.

May 23, 2000|DAVID G. SAVAGE and MARLA CONE | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — The fate of the Clinton administration's plan to force a 10% reduction in air pollution nationwide will be decided next year by the Supreme Court.

The anti-smog rules, if put into effect, would make breathing easier for millions and spare thousands from asthma and respiratory ailments, the administration says.

But the U.S. Chamber of Commerce says it would cost American business at least $46 billion a year to comply with the standards.

Last year, a U.S. appeals court in Washington sided with lawyers for business interests and said the Environmental Protection Agency had failed to justify lowering acceptable levels of ozone and particles in the air with scientific evidence.

Advocates on both sides have called the dispute over air quality standards the biggest environmental case in years. And few were surprised by the high court's announcement that it will hear the administration's appeal.

Arguments will be heard in the fall and a final ruling in the case (Browner vs. the American Trucking Assn., 99-1257) will not come until after President Clinton has left office in January.

The EPA set the new pollution limits for smog and soot after a years-long review, which determined that existing standards do not protect public health. Fine particles have been linked to cancer, asthma attacks and deaths from lung and heart ailments. Ozone irritates the lungs and decreases breathing power.

The new standards would be especially difficult to achieve in the Los Angeles region, which usually records the nation's highest levels of particulates as well as ozone.

California has struggled to clean its air for half a century but, if the new standards go into effect, the state will have to draft sweeping new rules that go much further. The new rule on particulates would focus attention on trucks and other diesel engines, the primary source for soot-like particles.

Despite California's air pollution problem, the strongest opposition to the new rules has come from the Midwest, where old power plants still burn coal and belch smoke.

Ohio, Michigan and West Virginia have joined the business groups in challenging the new rules. Eastern states, where the polluted air drifts in from the Midwest, have joined the Clinton administration and the American Lung Assn. in defending the rules.

"This is the first step in getting these health-protective air quality standards back on track," said Dave Hawkins, director of air and energy programs for the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group.

For the high court, the case raises the question of whether the judges should second-guess regulatory decisions. In the 1980s, the justices said agencies should have considerable leeway to regulate, so long as the rules are in line with the law passed in Congress. In this case, however, the U.S. appeals court said Congress gave away too much of its lawmaking power in the Clean Air Act.

The court also took up a second environmental case, saying it will consider limiting federal authority to protect wetlands. At issue is whether the Clean Water Act covers ponds, lakes and wetlands that are not navigable.

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Savage reported from Washington, Cone from Los Angeles.

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