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Supreme Court rules for Idaho landowners in wetland dispute

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Thursday weakened a landmark water pollution law by ruling that an Idaho couple’s property does not include wetlands subject to federal oversight under the law.

The decision, in which all the judges agreed on the result but diverged on the legal reasoning, concluded that the land of Chantell and Mike Sackett does not fall within the jurisdiction of the Sanitation Act of 1972. water, so the couple did not need a federal permit to build on the property. The decision ends a years-long battle between the Sacketts and the federal government and is a victory for conservative groups and business interests opposed to broad enforcement of the water pollution law.

In reaching its broader legal conclusion, the court ruled on a 5-4 vote in an opinion written by conservative judge Samuel Alito that the jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act extends only to wetlands that are “indistinguishable” from larger bodies of water by having a “continuous surface”. connection.”

Wetlands on the Sacketts’ property, Alito wrote, are “distinguishable from any possibly covered waters.”

Conservative Justice Brett Kavanaugh joined the court’s three liberal justices in disagreeing with the majority’s new test.

“By reducing the law’s wetland coverage to only adjacent wetlands, the court’s new test will leave some long-regulated adjacent wetlands no longer covered by the Clean Water Act, with significant impacts on water quality. water and flood control across the United States,” Kavanaugh said. writing.

The case saw the Sacketts return to the Supreme Court for the second time after justices ruled in their favor in an earlier case in 2012. Both cases involve the same underlying dispute: the Sacketts’ effort to build a property on land they own in Priest. Lake, Idaho, parts of which are considered EPA protected wetlands, which means the land is under federal jurisdiction and construction requires a permit.

Chantell and Mike Sackett.Lawrence Hurley / E&E News

The legal dispute centered on whether the Sacketts could challenge an EPA compliance order in court after filling the affected area with gravel and sand without obtaining a permit. The struggle, which began in 2007, continued over whether the land was a wetland.

The Sacketts turned to the Supreme Court for the second time after the 9th United States Circuit Court of Appeals, headquartered in San Francisco, ruled in August 2021 in favor of the federal government in its determination that the area was a wetland.

The law on how to define a wetland – of major interest to property developers and other commercial interests – has long been confusing and unresolved when the Supreme Court ruled on an earlier case on the question. In 2006, four justices said the Clean Water Act covered wetlands with a “continuous surface connection” to a waterway, but there was no clear majority. Judge Anthony Kennedy, who provided the fifth vote in the 5-4 decision, offered his own test that the law granted jurisdiction over wetlands with a “significant connection” to a waterway.

Successive presidential administrations have sought to clarify the law, with Democrats generally favoring greater federal power and Republicans, backed by business interests, saying the jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act should be limited.

The Biden administration finalized its own rule in December that largely reverts to the interpretation that existed before the actions taken by the Obama and Trump administrations.

On March 19, a federal judge blocked the rule in Idaho and Texas, saying it illegally extended federal jurisdiction beyond what Kennedy had contemplated. The rule went into effect in the rest of the states.

The court has a conservative majority skeptical of blanket assertions of executive power that often clip the wings of federal agencies. During the court’s term that ended in June, the justices issued a landmark decision that limited the EPA’s ability to fight climate change by regulating carbon emissions under the Clean Air Act.

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