UNLESS THE REPUBLICAN CONGRESS rouses itself and finds its nerve, the Environmental Protection Agency will issue absurd and indefensible new regulations next month. These regulations, devised under the Clean Air Act, will impose stringent new requirements on potential sources of ozone and " fine particulate matter" -- in other words, haze and dust. The regulations will thus gather under tight federal control a number of activities that produce, or could produce, the targeted emissions, from industrial manufacturing all the way to simple lawnmowing and backyard barbecues. Even in the annals of environmental overreach, the EPA's new thrust is extraordinary.

The new rules are set to supplant the Clean Air Act amendments passed by Congress in 1990. Since then, the nation's progress in air quality has been strong. Cities have seen a 50 percent drop in the number of days on which pollution levels exceed safe-air standards, and not one city has experienced an increase in pollution. So why the new, Draconian measures?

The EPA's answer of choice is "asthma." The agency claims that its stricter standards will reduce the incidence of this illness, which is rising. This, of course, turns logic on its head: If asthma cases are increasing while air pollution is decreasing, how would a further decrease in air pollution slow the spread of asthma? As a report from the Centers for Disease Control notes, "No evidence exists that supports the role of outdoor pollution levels as the primary factor" in asthma. Instead -- and embarrassingly for environmental activists -- the real enemy of asthma sufferers is indoor air pollution, the unintended sideeffect of one of our previous national campaigns, for energy efficiency. Americans now work in buildings that are shut up tight, in which opening a window is often impossible, making a host of allergens all the more troublesome.

The most generous thing that can be said for the EPA's health claims is that they are an errant leap of faith. Ronald Gots, director of the International Center for Toxicology and Medicine near Washington, sums it up this way: No regulations have "ever been based on fewer data than these"; indeed, the data "border on non-existent." President Clinton's own budget for last year called for research funding to "reduce the great uncertainty about health effects [as they relate to particulate matters]." And even the EPA's Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee acknowledges that a "diversity of opinion reflects many unanswered questions and uncertainties associated with establishing" the new regulations.

Then there is the question of cost: How great a hit will the economy take? The EPA has pegged total compliance costs at $ 6.5-8.5 billion a year, a laughably low number. According to the Air Quality Standards Coalition in Washington, an alliance of business, labor, and local governments, the agency arrived at that figure by calculating, not the regulations' true costs, but political palatability. The EPA simply stopped tallying potential costs beyond the $ 8.5 billion mark, noting in fine print that some areas of the country would fail to meet the new standards even after that already- considerable expenditure of money. One private research firm estimates that the new regulations will cost as much as $ 7 billion a year in Chicago alone.

Another question: Which activities, exactly, and which sectors of the economy will be subject to the rules? About this, the EPA is similarly slippery. In response to inquiries from farm-state legislators, concerned about the status of dust stirred up in the course of run-of-the-mill agricultural activities, like plowing and planting fields, combining wheat, and filling grain bins with corn, EPA administrator Carol Browner promised that the rules "will not require a farmer to change the way he or she does her job" (a prime example of Clinton-speak). Industrial firms, she said, not farms, are her targets. But as Browner must know, the new standards were not written to apply merely to smokestacks, or to smokestack soot. Rather, as the American Farm Bureau Federation has complained, they will result in additional regulation at virtually every stage of food production and processing.

Rep. Bob Smith, the chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, remarked in a recent hearing that the EPA's own data indicate that most of the "fine particulate matter" it wishes to regulate comes from agricultural sources. Indeed, one of the agency's stated goals is to make "reasonable progress" in reducing haze over 156 parks and wilderness areas across the country. Such areas -- especially in the West -- are much likelier to be surrounded by farms than by factories, which is why the chief researcher in the National Park Service's Air Quality Division freely admits that he considers agriculture a principal source of haze.

The larger issue is, Why does the EPA administrator believe she can confer on herself the authority to target certain sectors for enforcement while granting indulgences for others? If for this reason alone, Congress should challenge the regulations, or at least Administrator Browner. She cannot keep her word to farmers even if she would like to: It will be state agencies, not the EPA, that will decide how to meet the new federal standards. The EPA will hold the states accountable only for aggregate standards, without regard to discrete sectors.

Browner, though, is confident that Congress will not call her bluff. She recognizes that Republicans run notoriously scared on environmental issues, particularly in election years.

In 1996, for example, the administration championed a book called Our Stolen Future, written by a trio of environmental activists. The book, which boasted a foreword by Vice President Al Gore, asserted that pesticides cause "endocrine disruption," leading to aberrant sexual development, behavioral problems, and other ills. The EPA praised the work for "drawing public attention to an environmental problem which has long concerned the Clinton Administration."

Yet the endocrine-disruption theory is purely conjectural, at best. Even the book's authors concede that they cannot prove what they allege, and that they may never be able to do so. Moreover, evidence suggests that food naturally contains as much as 40 million times the endocrine-disruption potential as synthetic pesticide residue.

Even so, the Republican Congress went all wobbly over the issue, ramming through pesticide legislation based on nothing more than a fringe theory. In so doing, it handed the EPA a powerful new tool for mischief: The agency can now keep any and all pesticides off the market by subjecting them to endless and pointless testing.

This year, with its clean-air regulations, the EPA is poised to do much the same, using the same playbook: phony health claims and fictitious science aimed at winning more regulatory power for the EPA. This time, though, Congress should see it coming and mount a defense. The new regulations, according to some estimates, could cost the country as much as $ 150 billion, with no discernible improvement in air quality or public health whatever. Fool Congress once, shame on the EPA; fool Congress twice, shame on Congress. Excuses will not suffice. Republicans should buckle their chin straps.

Dave Juday is an exporter of agricultural products and an adjunct fellow of the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.

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