msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 1/21/2004 3:54:39 PM ET 2004-01-21T20:54:39

The Environmental Protection Agency may override states and order some anti-pollution measures that may be more costly, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.

The 5-4 decision, a victory for environmentalists, found the EPA did not go too far in 1999 when it overruled a decision by Alaska regulators, who wanted to let the operators of a zinc and lead mine use cheaper anti-pollution technology for power generation.

"This is a clear-cut victory for clean air and underscores the appropriate need for the EPA to act as a backstop if a state is improperly enforcing the Clean Air Act," said Frank O'Donnell, head of the Clean Air Trust. 

Added Vickie Patton, a senior attorney at Environmental Defense: “Now the EPA must carry out these fundamental public health and environmental responsibilities, not weaken clean air enforcement” -- a reference to recent rule changes giving power plants more flexibility in meeting pollution standards.

But the four justices who dissented said the ruling undercut the states’ power to control their environmental policies -- a view shared by limited government groups like the Cato Institute. "If the costs and benefits of the mining regulations at issue primarily effect Alaskans, and Alaskans are content with the trade-offs involved, what business is it of the EPA," asked Jerry Tayor, a natural resources expert at Cato.

Battle background
The Alaska case was the first of eight environmental cases on the court’s docket this term, an unusually high number. The fight was over whether the Red Dog Mine must use equipment that would reduce pollution from a new generator by 90 percent. The state wanted to allow the mine operator, a major employer in a particularly rural area of Alaska, to use equipment that would only reduce pollution by 30 percent.

The Clean Air Act allows state officials to make some decisions involving facilities within their borders, but still gives the EPA wide authority to enforce the anti-pollution law passed by Congress in 1970.

“We fail to see why Congress, having expressly endorsed an expansive surveillance role for EPA,” elsewhere in the law, “would then implicitly preclude the agency from verifying substantive compliance,” with the portion of the law at issue in this case, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote for the majority.

Ginsburg’s usual allies on the court’s ideological left joined her in the ruling: Justices John Paul Stevens, David Souter and Stephen Breyer. The crucial fifth vote came from Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who usually votes with the court conservatives in states’ rights cases.

Dissenters' arguments
The four dissenters argued that the decision undercuts states’ power to control their environmental policies.

“This is a great step backward in Congress’ design to grant states a significant stake in developing and enforcing national environmental objectives,” wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy, joined by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.

“After today’s decision, however, a state agency can no longer represent itself as the real governing body. No matter how much time was spent in consultation and negotiations, a single federal administrator can in the end set all aside by a unilateral order,” Kennedy wrote.

The case is State of Alaska v. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 02-658.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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