The Supreme Court ruled 8 to 0 yesterday that the government can impose strict, uniform regulations on industries to control pollution of the nation's waterways.
"It's a very important victory," said John R. Quarles, acting administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.
"It lays to rest one of the fundamental uncertainties which have hovered over the water-pollution control program for several years" by providing "critical support" of EPA strategy to make more than 42,000 plants comply with agency limits on industrial discharges, Quarles said.
The issue was whether the regulation issued by the EPA for the states to implement would be uniform for each of hundreds of industries or would be mere guidelines permitting the state to issue variances for individual plants.
Eight major producers of inorganic chemicals argued unsuccessfully that the 1972 amendments to the Federal Water Pollution Prevention and Control Act required the EPA to issue guideline on a plant-by-plant basis.
The agency and the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group which filed a friend-of-the-court brief, said they feared that guidelines would lead to easy grants of variances, lax enforcement by the states, and frustration of the amendments' goal of eliminating all discharges of pollutants into waterways by 1985.
Justice John Paul Stevens, in an opinion for the court, said that the companies' view of the law "would place an impossible burden on EPA" that Congress did not intend.
In order to give industry time to install the necessary pollution control equipment, Stevens wrote, the EPA would have to "give individual consideration to the circumstances of each of the more than 42,000 dischargers who have applied for permits and to issue or approve all of these permits well in advance of" a July 1, 1977, deadline.
The agency's position - that it can write uniform limits on waste discharges for each category of industrial plant - has received "overwhelming support" in the seven U.S. Circut Courts of Appeals where the issue has been litigated, Stevens added.
But the high court reversed part of a ruling by the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals by holding that the EPA is not required to provide a variance procedure for new plants. Congress intended the rules for new plants to impost "absolute prohibitions" on pollution, Stevens said.
In the case of existing plants, however, the decision requires that some allowances be made for variations among them.
One justice, Lewis F. Powell Jr., did not participate.
The chemical companies in the cases were E. I. du Pont de Nemours & Co., Olin Corp., FMC Corp., American Cyanamid Co., Monsanto Corp., Dow Chemical Co., Allied Chemical Corp. and Hercules, Inc.
The court took other actions: GARBAGE
In 1973 the New Jersey legislation enacted a law barring importation of solid or liquid wastes generated by neighboring states. Six other Northeastern states enacted similar laws.
The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that the law did not violate the constitutional grant of power to Congress to regulate interstate commerce, rejecting complaints to the contrary by, among others, the city of Philadelphia and the city of Glen Cove, N.Y.
Yesterday, the Supreme Court voted 5 to 4 to nullify the lower Court ruling and send it back for a determination whether a 1976 federal law, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, preempts the New Jersey law. In a dissent, Justice Powell said the high court should "decide this case on the merits" rather than needlessly creating "delay, expense, and uncertainty." SOCIAL SECURITY
Each year, about 7.6 million people with disabilities file claims under the Social Security Act. The law provides an elaborate mechanism for disappointed claimants to press their cases before administrative law judges, in the courts and with the Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare.
In an 8-to-0 decision yesterday, the Supreme Court held that persons wanting to press their claims in court after the secretary has held a hearing must do so within 60 days of the secretary's "final decision."
The opinion, written by Justice William J. Brennan Jr., reversed a ruling by the Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which had said a lawsuit was authorized under the Administrative Procedure Act.