As reports of unhealthful air soar, so do incidents of increased emergency room visits and hospitalizations of children and others with breathing difficulties. The widespread and continuing health damage caused by polluted air is irrefutable evidence that we need to continue efforts to make good on the three-decade-old congressional promise of clean air throughout this nation.

Unfortunately, our national cleanup program has been set back by a split decision by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia [Washington in Brief, May 27]. The two-judge majority challenged the right of Congress to delegate to the Environmental Protection Agency the power to set health-based clean air standards. In the process, the federal panel set aside health standards for smog and soot particles updated by EPA in 1997. Two judges cited the "nondelegation" doctrine last successfully invoked in the 1930s.

Not only did the two judges challenge the clean air standards on constitutional grounds, but they declared that, in theory, EPA could set a new standard for smog -- but not enforce it. They contended this was Congress's intent, citing a detailed 1990 congressional plan to achieve the old smog standard.

As the Senate majority leader in 1990, I was the floor manager and chief negotiator of the amendments to the Clean Air Act signed into law that year by President Bush. Although we did write a blueprint for states to achieve the old smog standard, we clearly never meant to preclude EPA from setting -- and enforcing -- a new standard. Indeed, we affirmed the decision made unanimously by the Senate in 1970 to require EPA to set and update health standards based on the best available science. That is exactly what EPA did in 1997.

One practical effect of the court ruling could be to slow down efforts to clean up dangerous pollutants. State governments await guidance from Washington.

The Clinton administration is appealing this decision [Washington in Brief, June 29]. If necessary, it should take the case to the Supreme Court. In the meantime, the EPA should take as many practical steps as possible to protect public health from the dangers of air pollution.

EPA also should be commended for its recently announced strategy to curb emissions that waft into the Northeast from upwind states [news story, June 15]. The agency also must press ahead with plans for cleaner cars, trucks and sport utility vehicles and cleaner gasoline and diesel fuel.

A recent national public opinion survey by the American Lung Association found that 86 percent of respondents favor stricter clean air health standards. The survey found that the public also trusts the EPA to set the health standards far more than it trusts Congress or the courts.

Americans have waited too long for clean air. That wait should not be prolonged indefinitely by one mistaken court decision.

GEORGE MITCHELL

Washington

The writer, a former Senate majority leader, is chairman of the Northern Ireland peace negotiations.