Supreme Court Affirms Health Basis of NAAQS, February 27, 2001

In a landmark decision on February 27, 2001, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously affirmed EPA’s ability to set NAAQS that protect public health.

Earlier, industry groups led by the American Trucking Association had challenged EPA’s new health standards for ozone and fine particles in the U.S. Court of Appeals. In a 2-1 decision on May 14, 1999, a panel of three judges from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit agreed with industry and overturned the new air quality standards. The judges ruled that the EPA must more precisely identify the criteria it uses to set air quality standards under the Clean Air Act, otherwise the power Congress gave the agency under the act would be “an unconstituitonal delegation of legislative power.” The court sent the regulations bact to the EPA, ordering the agency to detail the criteria that govern its choice of a standard.

The EPA appealed the ruling. In October 1999 the full U.S. Court of Appeals for D.C. refused to overturn the decision. Clean air advocates then turned to the U.S. Supreme Court to salvage the standards.

On January 27, 2000, the American Lung Association® (an intervenor in the lower court cases) joined the U.S. Department of Justice and the states of Massachuestts and New Jersey in requesting that the U.S. Supreme Court review the lower court decision.

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case in the fall of 2000. On February 27, 2001, the Court unanimously upheld the constitionality of the Clean Air Act as EPA had interpreted it in setting health-protective air quality standards. The Supreme Court also reaffirmed EPA’s long-standing interpretaion of the Clean Air Act that NAAQS must be based solely on pubic health considerations without consideration of cost. The Court did, however, rule that EPA must reconsider how implementation of the 1997 eight-hour ozone standards will be reconciled with implementation of the 1979 one-hour standard.

Meanwhile, the case is now back in the U.S. Court of Appeals, to decide issues not addressed in their initial opinion.

An EPA summary of the Supreme Court decision, with links to the Supreme Court’s opinion, may be found at: http://www.epa.gov/airlinks/court_summary.pdf.