updated 12/24/2003 4:42:45 PM ET 2003-12-24T21:42:45

A federal appeals court on Wednesday blocked new Bush administration changes to the Clean Air Act from going into effect, in a challenge from state attorneys general and cities that argued they would harm the environment and public health.

The Environmental Protection Agency rule would have made it easier for utilities, refineries and other industrial facilities to make repairs in the name of routine maintenance without installing additional pollution controls.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia issued an order that blocks the rules from going into effect until the legal challenge from the states and cities is heard, a process likely to last months.

The court’s decision stops, at least temporarily, one of the Bush administration’s major environmental decisions. The court’s justices said the challengers “demonstrated the irreparable harm and likelihood of success” of their case, which are required to stop the rule from taking effect.

12 states brought suit
EPA proposed the rule a year ago December, the then-acting administrator signed it in August and it was made final in October. It was due to have gone into effect this week.

Bringing suit were attorneys general for 12 states — Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont and Wisconsin — and legal officers for New York City, Washington, San Francisco, New Haven and a host of other cities in Connecticut.

Cynthia Bergman, a spokeswoman for EPA, declined to provide any initial comment, saying the agency had not yet had a chance to review the ruling.

EPA has maintained that it does not believe the rule will result in significant changes in emissions, and that it will preserve the public health protections required under law.

Utility industry decries 'setback'
Scott Segal, director of the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, a group of power companies, called the ruling “a setback for energy efficiency and environmental protection,” but expressed confidence the rule would eventually be upheld.

“The rule was based upon a substantial agency record with analysis, public hearings and thousands of rulemaking comments,” he said. “We expect the rule will soon be back on course.”

Environmental and health groups, including Natural Resources Defense Council and the American Lung Association, also challenged the rule in the appeals court.

They argued EPA’s maintenance rule violates the Clean Air Act by letting power plants and other industries increase pollution significantly without adopting control measures, and public harm would result.

“This is a great gift to the American people and a lump of coal to the Bush administration and its polluter friends,” John Walke, NRDC’s clean air director. “The court agreed this rule would cause great harm to the public that could not be undone, and it’s likely the rule will be struck down for running afoul of the Clean Air Act.”

Attorneys general hail decision
Tom Reilly, the Massachusetts attorney general, also spoke in terms of holiday gifts, saying the court had “forced EPA to take back its early Christmas present to the coal-fired power plants in the Midwest.”

Eliot Spitzer, New York’s attorney general, called it “a major decision.”

“When it comes to environmental policy, this court decision is as big a success as we’ve had in stopping the Bush administration from undercutting the Clean Air Act,” he said.

But the judges also said they found no reason to revisit an earlier decision not to block other of the EPA’s changes to the Clean Air Act that were made final in December 2002.

Those new rules had already begun to go into effect in some states earlier this year, giving coal-fired power plants and other industrial facilities more flexibility in calculating their pollution levels.

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