WASHINGTON — A federal court on Tuesday upheld a 2008 air pollution standard the Obama administration vowed to strengthen, but later reversed itself and kept in place.

The U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington rejected arguments that the ozone standard for public health set by former President George W. Bush was either too weak or too strong. The Environmental Protection Agency's scientific advisory panel at the time said the standard should have been more stringent to adequately protect health.

But referencing Goldilocks and the Three Bears, the court on Tuesday said it cannot demand EPA get things "just right" when it comes to health.

However, the court ruled that the agency would have to revisit a secondary standard aimed at protection forests and other vegetation from ozone pollution.

The decision marked a partial defeat for environmental groups, a dozen states and two cities that had sued the agency in 2008 to strengthen the standards, only to resume the legal battle after Obama decided not to toughen them.

But the ruling was also a mixed bag for the state of Mississippi, which along with an association of industrial groups, argued against the standards because they were too stringent.

Ozone, the main ingredient in smog, is a powerful lung irritant that can cause asthma and other lung ailments. Smog is created when emissions from cars, power and chemical plants, refineries and other factories mix in sunlight and heat.

The Obama administration proposed in January 2010 to tighten the smog standard at a cost of $90 billion a year. But 18 months later, the White House tabled the plans after businesses and congressional Republicans said it would harm the economy. A review of the standard was supposed to be finished this year, but EPA has missed that deadline.

"The Obama administration now has the opportunity to follow the science, and not play politics with protecting our national parks and forest from air pollution damage," said Mark Wenzler, vice president of climate and air quality programs at the National Parks Conservation Association.

The states and cities arguing for a stronger, more protective standard were New York, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island the District of Columbia and New York City.

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Link to U.S. Court of Appeals decision: http://1.usa.gov/18ABpsI

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