ST. LOUIS — MISSOURI is suing the federal government over clean-air standards - a move that could hold ramifications for cities and states nationwide.
The state has filed suit in St. Louis federal district court arguing that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) does not have the authority to withhold highway funds if clean-air standards are not met. The trial began Nov. 21 and is expected to conclude this week.
``This is all about the role of the federal government vis-a-vis the states,'' says Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon, adding that this is a ``test case'' that may end up in the Supreme Court. Other states are watching the case carefully, mindful that the EPA has taken a record 2,247 enforcement actions against polluters this year.
Although no state has ever challenged the EPA on clean-air sanctions, other states have challenged the federal government's sanctions authority by citing the 10th amendment, which gives the states powers not specifically delegated to the federal government.
If the suit succeeds, it could interfere with the EPA's efforts to enforce tougher rules on auto emissions and other Clean Air Act mandates.
David Hawkins, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington, does not expect the case to succeed, however. ``There is no constitutional impediment to these sanctions,'' he says, calling the case entirely ``politically motivated.''
``All this case is doing is delaying clean air for Missouri,'' says a representative of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment.
Mr. Nixon admits that the lawsuit is based more on political and legal issues than environmental concerns. ``It is the coercive threat of these counterproductive sanctions the state of Missouri objects to, not the goal of cleaner air,'' he says.
Along with many major cities across the US, the St. Louis metropolitan area is categorized as a ``nonattainment area'' for ozone levels under the Clean Air Act. It is expected to cost the state about $125 million to bring the region into compliance with federal law.
If the state fails to implement the plan, the EPA has threatened to withhold $400 million in federal highway funds raised in the state through gas taxes. It would also impose a moratorium on new industry. Missouri officials argue that the state's citizens are entitled to these highway funds since they sent the money to Washington in the first place.
EPA officials have argued that states opposed to the federal clean-air sanctions should go to Congress and get the law changed rather than taking the federal agency to court.
The EPA also points to the 1987 Supreme Court decision in South Dakota v. Dole in which the court upheld federal withholding of highway funds from states that refused to raise the legal drinking age to 21.
``In that situation, highway funds had a rational relationship to the goal,'' Nixon responds. ``In this situation, the penalty bears no rational connection to the harm they say would exist. In fact, if we fail to meet the standards they call for, the penalty of no highway funds would mean that air pollution would get worse.'' Without money to build highways, congestion would increase and cars would spend longer periods on roads releasing the exhaust that depletes ozone.
This lawsuit is part of a larger national debate about ``unfunded mandates'' in which the federal government passes laws and requires states to implement them without federal funds.
Congress clearly has the power to enact the Clean Air Act, Missouri officials say. ``But what we're talking about here is an attempt by the federal government to pass responsibility on to the state and coerce the state to make all the tough calls,'' Nixon says.
State officials hope to get a ruling on the case by Jan. 1, when sanctions may kick in.