Health costs first

USEPA can now set stringent air quality standards only on the basis of health costs, not economic impacts

Published: Saturday 31 March 2001

in a far-reaching decision, the us Supreme Court has ruled in favour of the us Environmental Protection Agency (usepa) to set clean air standards, rejecting the industry's arguments that the economic costs of regulation must be weighed against the health benefits. "The Supreme Court unanimously upheld the usepa efforts to protect the health of millions of Americans from the dangers of air pollution and affirmed our constitutional authority to set these kinds of health protection standards in the future," said Christine Todd Whitman, administrator of the usepa .

While the court ordered the usepa to adopt a more "reasonable" interpretation for enforcing ozone standards in some areas, it agreed that the agency has the right to enforce stringent regulations set in 1997. Environmentalists hailed the decision saying it was a "sweeping" victory for the agency, with strong implications for the environmental and regulatory policies of president George Bush's administration.

"The new standards, if properly enforced, can save the lives of 15,000 asthma patients. It would also bring down the death of up to 1.5 million per year, including young children and the elderly," said Thomas F Reilly, the state attorney general of Massachusetts.

The suit, filed by the American Trucking Associations, the us Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers and other industry groups, argued that certain clean air regulations would cost us$46 billion annually, and that the usepa was required to take those costs into account. The court disagreed. "Were it not for the hundreds of pages of briefing respondents have submitted on the issue, one would have thought it fairly clear that (the law) does not permit the usepa to consider costs in setting the standards," the court said.

The court also rejected the industry's argument that the agency had usurped the Congress's lawmaking power in setting the standards. The Clean Air Act "fits comfortably within the scope of discretion permitted by our precedent". The decisions overturned a previous ruling by the us court of appeals for the district of Columbia Circuit.

However, the Supreme Court ruled that the usepa's implementation of the new standards was unlawful and it ordered the agency to reformulate the way it implements the law with the appeals court's supervision. Industry lawyers viewed this as a victory. Regardless of how the administration enforces the statute, a fierce struggle in Congress seems inevitable, according to The Boston Globe .

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