A federal appeals court said Friday that the Bush administration ignored the law when it imposed less stringent requirements on power plants to reduce mercury pollution, which scientists fear could cause neurological problems in 60,000 newborns a year.
A three-judge panel unanimously struck down a mercury-control plan imposed by the Environmental Protection Agency three years ago. It established an emissions trading process in which some plants could avoid installing the best mercury control technology available by buying pollution credits.
Environmentalist and health experts argued that such a cap-and-trading mechanism would create "hot spots" of mercury contamination near some power plants. Seventeen states as well as environmental and health groups joined in a suit to block the regulation, saying it did not adequately protect public health.
The ruling marks another judicial setback for the Bush administration's environmental policies. The Supreme Court last year took the administration to task for not regulating greenhouse gases. Courts have also rejected attempts to overhaul federal forest policies and streamline fuel economy standards for small trucks.
"What the administration did ... was essentially try to torpedo environmental regulations," said James Pew, an attorney for the environmental group Earthjustice who worked on the cases. "This really is a repudiation of the Bush administration's environmental legacy."
The court said that the EPA violated the federal Clean Air Act when it scrapped a mercury control policy that was established in December 2000 under the Clinton administration.
An EPA statement said the court's ruling will set its regulators back at zero, delaying the implementation of any standard to control mercury emissions.