High court approves 'bubble concept' for air-pollution control

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) can now be more flexible when setting air-pollution standards. In a victory for the Reagan administration, the Supreme Court said Monday that environmental officials could use the ''bubble concept'' when deciding whether companies comply with the Clean Air Act. In a 6-to-0 decision, the justices ruled in effect that the controversial concept is a fair way to balance environmental concerns against the costs of pollution control.

Under the bubble concept, environmental enforcers take into account only the total amount of pollution that rises from a plant. Companies don't have to go through the process of measuring the emissions given off by each smokestack, or boiler, or furnace.

This approach gives companies more leeway in deciding how they're going to meet pollution requirements when planning new construction.

''For instance, you can have your new smokestack, as long as you make corresponding reductions (in emissions) elsewhere,'' an EPA official explains.

''And it's not one to one. You have to take out more (pollution) than you're going to put in.''

Industry - in particular steel and petrochemical companies - have pushed for this change because it saves them money. EPA estimates that each ''bubble'' it approves saves companies $3 million over the more traditional, smokestack-by-smokestack approach.

So far, EPA has approved 36 ''bubbles'' around the country since it instituted the policy in 1981. Agency officials would like to take the concept even further - allowing a company to operate a particularly dirty plant if it also builds one that is particularly clean, for instance.

But as an EPA executive admits, ''things have been moving somewhat slowly.''

States, who under law have much responsibility for environmental enforcement, aren't required to adopt the bubble concept.

Environmental groups, led by the National Resources Defense Council, challenged the approach in court, saying it would simply result in companies stalling the cleanup of plants, and in a general increase in pollution.

A federal appeals court had agreed with the environmentalists, ruling that the bubble concept couldn't be used in areas of the country that were in violation of federal air-pollution standards. The Supreme Court set aside that ruling.

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