Significant Deterioration: A Tiger by the Tail
MR. ZARB: The significant deterioration question is one of complete vagueness. I don't know what it means and Administrator Train doesn't know what it means.
REP. HASTINGS: I might add the Congress to that list, we don't know what it means, either . . . and let us add the court to that. The Supreme Court didn't seem to come down too strong on deciding it.
--FEA Administrator Frank Zarb and Rep. James Hastings, 1975
IN THE early 1970s environmental groups won two court battles that fundamentally altered the goals of the Environmental Protection Agency's air pollution control program. In the first case, Sierra Club v. Ruckelshaus, the District Court for the District of Columbia, later upheld by the D.C. Circuit and the Supreme Court, ruled that state implementation plans (SIPs) must include provisions not just to assure the attainment and maintenance of national air quality standards, but also to prevent the "degradation" of air currently cleaner than required by the standards.1 This decision in effect replaced the Clean Air Act's uniform national ambient air quality standards with a multiplicity of standards based on previous air quality levels, not on health or welfare effects.
In the second case, Natural Resources Defense Council v. Environmental Protection Agency, the Fifth Circuit prohibited polluters from achieving air quality standards through "dispersion enhancement" (spreading pollutants over a wider area) rather than through emission reduction.2 The EPA eventually accepted this reading of the act, forgoing an appeal to the Supreme Court. Limiting the use of "dispersion enhancement" in effect adds the goal of reducing total emissions to the goal of meeting ambient air quality standards.
The statutory basis for both sets of judicial decisions was slim at best.____________________