EPA Can Weigh Cost-Benefits in Environmental Action, Court Says

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On Wednesday the Supreme Court said that the Environmental Protection Agency may consider whether the cost of protecting fish and other aquatic creatures is feasible. This kind of protection would involve advanced upgrades for older power plants—a defeat for environmentalists who had challenged the government’s position.

The ruling of the court stood 6 to 3 in favor that the cost-benefit decisions are allowed under the Clean Water Act, as the agency moved to require more than 500 older power plants to upgrade the ways in which they drew water to cool machinery, in efforts to decrease the amount of aquatic life destroyed. The EPA estimated that approximately 3.4 billion fish and shellfish die each year because of water-intake systems.

The EPA also estimated that the new technology, which would bring the older plants more in line with new plants, would cost approximately $3.5 billion annually.

Environmentalists argued that the Clean Water Act requires remedies that “reflect the best technology available for minimizing adverse environmental impact,” and that Congress understood the near- impossible task of placing a monetary value on aquatic life lost.

Justice Antonin Scalia wrote that even environmentalists understood that lines had to be drawn somewhere as to whether the most advanced technology would be worth it.

“It seems to us, therefore, the phrase ‘best technology available,’ even with the added specification ‘for minimizing adverse environmental impact,’ does not unambiguously preclude cost-benefit analysis,” he wrote.

More than 214 billion gallons of water from U.S. waterways are drawn by power plants daily in order to cool machinery. This is what kills the billions of aquatic life by smashing the fish and shellfish against intake screens or sucking them into the cooling systems. The newer plants’ closed-cooling systems reduce the rate by 98 percent.

The EPA said less expensive plans to advance older plants’ technology would reduce the loss by 80 to 95 percent.

Justice John Paul Stevens said the majority was ignoring the plain language of the statute and he found it puzzling that the court relied on Congress’s silence in determining whether a cost-benefit analysis was appropriate in the decision for its allowance.

 

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