A U.S. Court of Appeals panel yesterday awarded attorneys' fees to an environmental group that successfully challenged an Environmental Protection Agency decision, even though the EPA rescinded the decision before the case went to trial.

The lawsuit, filed by the Environmental Defense Fund, took issue with the agency's decision to suspend annual reporting requirements by waste treatment plant operators and industries that produce hazardous wastes.

In a sharply worded opinion critical of the EPA, the three-judge panel said the agency had to pay the environmental group $6,100 in legal fees even though it reinstated the requirements after the lawsuit was filed.

"The record in this case seems to make it plain beyond cavil that, but for this litigation, the . . . requirements would not have been reinstated," the panel said.

The EPA argued that it suspended the reporting requirements to avoid forcing compliance with regulations that were about to be terminated or changed. The agency also argued that it was under severe time pressure to suspend the requirements and therefore did not have to comply with a federal law that requires agencies to give public notice and time for comment before suspending rules. Because it acted properly, the EPA said, legal fees should not be awarded.

But the appellate court said the time pressures were "the result of the agency's own delay" and called the EPA's claims "baseless."

The panel concluded that "there was no legitimate reason whatsoever for EPA to ignore the commands of the Administrative Procedures Act regarding notice and comment."