Supreme Court rules against EPA in dispute over regulating wetlands


Washington — The Supreme Court on Thursday ruled against the Environmental Protection Agency in a dispute over its authority to regulate certain wetlands under the Clean Water Act, long seen as a key tool to protect waterways from pollution.

In an opinion authored by Justice Samuel Alito in the case known as Sackett v. EPA, the high court found that the agency’s interpretation of the wetlands covered under the Clean Water Act is “inconsistent” with the law’s text and structure, and the law extends only to “wetlands with a continuous surface connection to bodies of water that are ‘waters of the United States’ in their own right.”

Five justices joined the majority opinion by Alito, while the remaining four — Justices Brett Kavanaugh, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Ketanji Brown Jackson — concurred in the judgment. 

The decision from the conservative court is the latest to target the authority of the EPA to police pollution. On the final day of its term last year, the high court limited the agency’s power to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, dealing a blow to efforts to combat climate change.

That dispute involved the Clean Air Act, and the Supreme Court now has addressed the EPA’s authority under the Clean Water Act, which regulates discharges of pollutants into what the law defines as “waters of the United States.” Under regulations issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, “waters of the United States” is defined to include “wetlands” that are “adjacent” to traditional navigable waters.

The long-running case dates back to 2007, when Michael and Chantell Sackett began building a home on a lot in a residential neighborhood near Priest Lake, Idaho. After the Sacketts obtained local building permits and started placing sand and gravel fill on the lot, the EPA ordered the work to stop and directed the couple to restore the property to its natural state, asserting the land contained wetlands subject to protection under the Clean Water Act.

Facing thousands of dollars in penalties, the Sacketts sued the EPA in 2008, arguing the agency’s jurisdiction under the law did not extend to their property.

The agency moved to dismiss the suit, and a federal district court in Idaho granted the request. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit affirmed, but the Supreme Court revived the suit and sent the dispute back to the lower courts.

On its second round through the lower courts, the district court ruled for the EPA, finding that the agency had the authority to regulate the wetlands purported to be on the Sacketts’ lot under a test laid out by Justice Anthony Kennedy in a 2006 case involving the Clean Water Act.

In the 2006 case, Rapanos v. United States, the court laid out two competing tests for determining whether wetlands can be regulated under the Clean Water Act. Under Kennedy’s standard — applied by the lower courts in the Sacketts’ legal fight — a wetland may be covered by the Clean Water Act if it bears a “significant nexus” with traditional navigable waters.

The 9th Circuit affirmed the district court’s ruling, finding that the EPA has power over the wetlands. In its decision, the appeals court found the agency has jurisdiction over the Sacketts’ property, which it described as a “soggy residential lot,” because the wetlands on it were adjacent to a tributary that, together with another wetland complex, had a significant nexus to Priest Lake. The wetlands, the 9th Circuit found, “significantly affect the integrity of Priest Lake.”

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