WASHINGTON In a shift from its position during the Bush administration, the Environmental Protection Agency has decided to drop its appeal of a decision that struck down its mercury rules for utilities, the Justice Department said on Friday.
Moving to dismiss the case, Acting Solicitor General Edwin Kneedler said the EPA has decided to take a position consistent with the appeals court's decision and develop appropriate standards to regulate power-plant emissions under the law.
At issue was a ruling by a U.S. appeals court that the EPA violated the Clean Air Act in 2005 when it exempted coal plants from the strictest emission controls for mercury and other toxic substances like arsenic, lead and nickel.
Bush administration lawyers appealed to the Supreme Court in October. But Kneedler said that in light of the EPA's decision the government no longer seeks review by the Supreme Court of the appeal court's ruling a year ago.
An organization representing individual electric utilities has also appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court. The high court is scheduled to consider that appeal on February 20.
The appeals court's ruling was viewed as a major victory for environmentalists and a setback for big U.S. coal-burning utilities. Some 14 states, including New Jersey, New York and California, had sued the EPA over the rules, along with environmental and public health groups.
The nation's 1,100 coal-burning units emit about 48 tons of mercury each year, the largest unregulated U.S. source. The EPA rule struck down by the appeals court would have set the cap at 38 tons per year by 2010 and 15 tons per year in 2018.
Environmentalists welcomed the move to drop the appeal.
"Today's action shows the Obama administration -- unlike its predecessor -- won't be a pawn of the coal-burning electric power industry," said Frank O'Donnell of Clean Air Watch.
(Reporting by James Vicini; Editing by Christian Wiessner)