Obama Scores Third Court Victory in Air Pollution Fight

The Obama administration scored a third legal victory in less than a month in its fight to cut air pollution as regulators prepare rules to reduce emissions from power plants.

In a unanimous decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington said the Environmental Protection Agency was within its discretion to tighten standards on fine particulate matter, or soot, from coal power plants, refineries, manufacturers and vehicles. The court struck down a challenge by the National Association of Manufacturers, which said the rule overreached.

The administration has now defeated challenges to pollution rules three times since mid-April, as the Supreme Court and the U.S. Court of Appeals tossed aside industry objections and gave the EPA broad leeway to set standards.

“Time after time, courts have found that EPA’s clean air standards are solidly based in science and the law,” Peter Zalzal, an attorney with the Environmental Defense Fund, said in a statement. “This decision, like the ones before it, will help us ensure longer and healthier lives for all Americans.”

The soot particles at issue in today’s ruling are among the most dangerous forms of pollution, especially for children, people with asthma and the elderly, said John Walke, clean air director at the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington.

Soot Dangers

“Tiny soot particles are especially dangerous because they penetrate deep into the heart, lungs and blood streams causing respiratory ailments including heart attacks, strokes asthma attacks and even premature death,” Walke said. “It is probably the most dangerous common form of air pollution that we worry about.”

EPA clean air standards stem from a provision in the Clean Air Act that requires standards based on health and medical science, Walke said. Industry groups have challenged the science behind the standards and have accused the EPA of acting arbitrarily, he said.

“We’re disappointed in today’s ruling that only further adds to the thousands of regulations facing manufacturers,” Linda Kelly, senior vice president for the Washington-based manufacturers group, said in a statement. “The court’s decision also underscores the difficulty manufacturers face in pushing back against a powerful and often overreaching EPA.”

The group is “reviewing the decision and considering future options,” she added.

The rules tighten the standard for soot to 12 micrograms per cubic meter from 15, Zalzal said. The rule requires installation of monitoring sites near busy roads in urban areas where more than 1 million people live. The EPA and the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee determined last year that existing standards didn’t adequately protect public health.

Added Costs

The rule will cost $53 million to $350 million a year to implement while producing health benefits estimated at $4 billion to $9.1 billion in 2020, according to the EPA.

The Clean Air Act gives the agency wide latitude in setting pollution rules and in this case the “EPA’s decision and explanation are at least reasonable,” the appeals court said. Courts have previously upheld pollution standards for smog, lead, nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide.

On April 29, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a rule to cut pollutants that cause smog and acid rain. On April 15, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington upheld a regulation limiting mercury, arsenic and other toxic emissions from coal plants.

The case decided today is National Association of Manufacturers v. EPA, 13-1069, U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit (Washington).

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