A federal appeals court on Friday struck down the Bush administration's strategy for reducing smog, which affects the health of more than half of the nation's population, mostly those with asthma and other respiratory illnesses.
The Environmental Protection Agency rules for forcing state cleanups of smog don't meet Clean Air Act requirements, a three-judge panel ruled in a suit brought by a Southern California clean-air agency, environmental groups and some Eastern states downwind of others states' smog.
Circuit Judge Judith Rogers, writing for the panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, said, "EPA has failed to heed the restrictions on its discretion set forth in the Act." The court ordered the agency to come up with a new enforcement plan.
Smog is produced by nitrogen oxides reacting with other chemicals to create ground-level ozone, particularly in the summer months when temperatures climb. Other major sources of the pollution are motor vehicle exhaust, gas vapors and chemical solvents.
In the stratosphere, ozone occurs naturally and helps shield against harmful ultraviolet rays.
The EPA in 2004 issued new smog standards requiring 474 counties with about 159 million people living in them to reduce pollution of smog-causing ozone and improve the air enough to meet federal health standards.
The appeals court panel said the agency was allowing "backsliding" by states when it should have been directing them to order new emission controls on industrial plants, more public transportation, tougher vehicle inspection programs or cleaner-burning gasoline. States that fail to meet the standards risk losing federal highway dollars under the law.
Tougher standards for ground-level ozone and fine soot were ordered by the Clinton administration in 1997 after it determined that levels set in 1979 didn't adequately protect children, the elderly and people with respiratory ailments. The Supreme Court in 2001 upheld the tougher standards after they were challenged by industry.
EPA spokeswoman Jennifer Wood said Friday that the agency would review the panel's decision to determine whether it would ask the full appeals court to rehear the case.
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who in January becomes chairwoman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said she was pleased the court had "seen through EPA's transparent attempts to weaken" the clean air law. She said the Democratic Congress would closely monitor the agency as it comes up with a new plan for reducing smog.
Plaintiffs in the suit were California's South Coast Air Quality Management District, the American Lung Assn., Environmental Defense, the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the District of Columbia, and the states of Massachusetts, Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, New York and Pennsylvania.