‘Significant repercussions.’ Supreme Court limits government power to curb water pollution

John Fritze


WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court on Thursday sided with a couple who have been battling the Environmental Protection Agencyfor more than a decade over a plan to develop a property in the Idaho panhandle, a decision with potentially sweeping national ramifications for water quality, agriculture and development.

The case, which was centered on the scope of the 1972 Clean Water Act, was arguably the most important environmental decision the Supreme Court has handed down since a majority last year invalidated an EPA effort to regulate power plant emissions. The plaintiffs asked the court to provide a clearer definition for what the law meant when it gave the agency power to regulate the “waters of the United States.”

In an opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito and joined by four other conservative justices, the court limited the scope of the EPA’s ability to control wetland pollution. That’s important because, in addition to the wetlands themselves, the water at issue often feeds into the rivers and lakes that are more clearly covered by federal pollution controls.

President Joe Biden predicted the decision would “take our country backwards.” Several congressional Republicans praised the ruling, including Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who described it as “an important check on executive overreach.”

What did the Supreme Court rule in the EPA case?

  • Majority: A majority of the court said that the lack of clarity about what types of waters are covered by the Clean Water Act was difficult for property owners to understand.
  • What Alito wrote: A “staggering array of landowners,” Alito wrote, “are at risk of criminal prosecution” if they don’t realize their property is subject to federal environmental rules. Alito’s opinion was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas, Neil Gorsuch and Amy Coney Barrett − all Republican appointees.
  • Kavanaugh warns of repercussions:Justice Brett Kavanaugh, joined by three liberal justices, said that while he sided with the plaintiffs and against the EPA, he disagreed with the court’s definition of what types of waters should be subject to government regulation. The court’s ruling, Kavanaugh warned, would have “significant repercussions for water quality and flood control throughout the United States.” Kavanaugh, a Republican appointee, was joined by Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Ketanji Brown Jackson, all Democratic appointees.
  • Bottom line: The court’s opinion adopts a new, more narrow standard that will limit how much water the EPA may regulate. That’s a win for developers and a loss for environmentalists.

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