Supreme Court Upholds Clean Air Standards Against Industry Attack

In a victory for clean air, the US Supreme Court upheld the authority of the EPA to set smog and soot standards.


Howard Fox, Earthjustice – DC, (202) 667-4500

In a victory for clean air, the US Supreme Court today upheld the authority of the EPA to set smog and soot standards. The court’s ruling came in a case filed by industry groups that argued the Clean Air Act is unconstitutional and that clean air standards must be based on consideration of compliance costs. Whitman v. American Trucking Assns., S.Ct. No. 99-1257 (2/27/01).

“The Supreme Court has upheld the Clean Air Act’s central mandate to protect the public health against pollution that kills tens of thousands of people each year,” said Howard Fox of Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, which represented American Lung Association in the case. “Industry’s attempt to dilute public health protection has met with a resounding defeat. The Supreme Court’s decision vindicates what then-Governor Christine Todd Whitman said in her brief: industry’s argument was not only meritless, but ‘borders on the wholly frivolous.'”

At issue in the case were 1997 national air quality standards for particles (soot) and ozone (smog) — standards which the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates will each year prevent thousands of premature deaths, tens of thousands of hospitalizations and other illnesses for respiratory and cardiovascular causes, and millions of days of missed work and school.

The 1997 standards were challenged by industry and three states, and in 1999 the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled that the Clean Air Act as interpreted by EPA represents an unconstitutional delegation of Congress’s legislative authority. American Lung Association, represented by Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, intervened to oppose the industry and state challenges, and — along with several states including California, New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and New Jersey, among others — filed briefs in support of EPA’s appeal to the Supreme Court.

Today the Supreme Court unanimously rejected industry’s constitutional argument. “The Court confirmed that Congress didn’t violate the Constitution when it directed EPA to set air quality standards that ‘protect the public health,’ and EPA didn’t violate it by setting standards that better protect Americans from death, hospitalization, and illness,” said Fox.

The Court also rejected industry’s counter-attack, which challenged EPA’s thirty-year old practice of basing air quality standards on public health, and leaving compliance costs to be considered later, when the standards are implemented: “Industry has repeatedly tried to persuade Congress to amend the Act to allow cost-benefit analysis, but Congress has refused,” said Fox. “The Supreme Court correctly rejected industry’s attempt to obtain from the unelected judiciary what it has been unable to obtain from the elected members of Congress.”

One issue — specifically, the timetable for meeting the new ozone standard — was sent back to EPA for further consideration. Importantly, the Court did not accept industry’s argument that EPA could not implement the new ozone standard at all, but merely ruled that the agency has to develop a “reasonable” approach for doing so.

The Supreme Court’s decision is available at

Read an article by Earthjustice attorney Howard Fox on the Supreme Court’s air quality decision.


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