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High court backs EPA in 5-4 vote

Federal regulators can trump more permissive state officials in some disputes over costly measures to limit air pollution, the Supreme Court said Wednesday in a ruling that departed from its trend toward granting state governments more power.

Alaska's governor wanted to allow the world's largest zinc mine to use cheaper, less effective antipollution equipment, but the federal Environmental Protection Agency said no. The Supreme Court's 5-4 ruling upholds EPA's veto power in such cases.

"The highest court in the land has made it eminently clear that the EPA has ample authority to protect the public health and the environment from the harmful effects of air pollution," said Vickie Patton, a lawyer with the interest group Environmental Defense.

The victory for environmentalists may be more symbolic than substantive. The portion of the Clean Air Act at issue has not been front and center in court fights over pollution, and the court majority kept its ruling narrow.

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

In this case, Congress gave the EPA power to override unreasonable state decisions, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote for the majority, which included John Paul Stevens, David Souter, Stephen Breyer and Sandra Day O'Connor.

The justices who dissented _ Anthony Kennedy, William Rehnquist, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas _ said the ruling undercuts states' ability to control their environmental policies and threatens to give the federal government too much muscle in other areas.

Department wants national cattle ID program

WASHINGTON _ The Agriculture Department wants to implement a nationwide cattle identification system as a way to better track the nation's herd in the wake of the discovery of the nation's first known case of mad cow disease.

Speaking Wednesday before the House Committee on Agriculture, USDA Secretary Ann Veneman said the department has been studying how to organize a cattle identification system for 18 months.

"I understand the need to get it done quickly," Veneman said. But she also said there was debate about whether there should be one system organized and funded by the government or whether the department should set standards that ranchers and the meat industry can apply in a variety of ways.

No cost set yet on Bush's plan for moon, Mars

WASHINGTON _ How much will President Bush's grand plan to send astronauts to the moon and then Mars cost? NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe said Wednesday his agency doesn't know and doesn't want to know just yet.

Coming up with a cost for the mission or even a date for sending humans to Mars would "start to close off options," O'Keefe said. "Let's not presume that somehow we've got an answer to it now."

GAO: Star-studded benefit has unexplained expenses

WASHINGTON _ Government auditors have uncovered hundreds of thousands of dollars in unexplained expenses the United Services Organization submitted for concerts for troops at the height of the war in Afghanistan that featured Jennifer Lopez, Kid Rock and other stars.

The Lopez gig was among several cited in a General Accounting Office report released this month that found more than $430,000 in improper, questionable or unsupported USO tour expenses charged to the Pentagon.

The GAO study, which looked at 10 randomly selected tours during 2000 and 2001, found no evidence of malfeasance in the nonprofit organization's use of government money. Nor did the entertainers do anything wrong.

But the investigation, requested by Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Largo, found taxpayers repeatedly paid for first-class plane tickets, liquor and limousine services for celebrities in violation of Pentagon and federal regulations.

Elsewhere . . .

AIDS QUILT CREATOR SUES OWNER: The creator of the AIDS Memorial Quilt is suing the nonprofit foundation that owns it, alleging he was fired after he raised concerns the quilt has "languished" in a warehouse.

Cleve Jones, who in 1987 stitched the first square of what became an international symbol of the human toll of AIDS, maintains that mismanagement by the Names Project Foundation doomed his hope of having the full 48,000-panel quilt displayed in Washington this October.

AFGHANISTAN VICTIMS SHARE A COFFIN: Relatives look on Wednesday as five U.S. servicemen who died together when their helicopter crashed in November in Afghanistan were buried together Wednesday at Arlington National Cemetery. Because their remains were mixed together, the five received a single burial.