Supreme Court Rules Against the EPA

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously in favor of an Idaho couple that challenged an EPA Clean Water Act compliance order which carried up to $75,000 in fines. The couple, Chantell and Michael Sackett bought a subdivided lot north of Idaho’s Priest Lake where they intended to build a house on land designated as a federal wetland. The Sackett’s filed a lawsuit to fight the EPA’s designation. The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals threw out the lawsuit, so the Sacketts took their case all the way to the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court ruling says that the Sacketts are entitled to challenge the EPA’s compliance order in federal court. However, the ruling does not say the couple can continue to build their house on the lot. The ruling, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) leaves “intact the EPA’s ability to issue compliance orders that protect our health and our environment.

The NRDC’s position, over all, is a cup-half-full approach. Jon Devine, senior attorney in the NRDC’s water program said, in a statement, that the “Supreme Court did not give anyone a license to pollute.” Devine believes that “those who pollute our waters will still be held accountable.”

“Today’s decision affirmed the legal principle that the EPA under the Clean Water Act may issue compliance orders to promote speedy resolution of pollution problems,” Devine adds. “The court did not adopt any of the radical ideas advanced by industry and its allies that could have severely hampered public health and environmental protections.”

While all of that is true, not everyone is that optimistic about the decision. Nina Mendelson, a law professor at the University of Michigan Law School believes that the ruling’s effect “may go significantly beyond wetlands…it also may interfere with the EPA’s ability to respond quickly to protect the nation’s waterways from all kinds of threats, including threats we can all agree are urgent.”

“The EPA is likely to be stuck in litigation over compliance orders not only in wetlands cases, but in these cases of obviously urgent threats to water quality,” Mendelson wrote about the ruling. “It may use compliance orders less often and when it does use them, it may take much longer for the orders to go into effect.”

Mendelson worries that the ruling could extend beyond wetlands’ cases to Clean Air Act and Solid Waste Disposal Act compliance orders. “The EPA is likely to face arguments about judicial review of compliance orders in these settings, too,” Mendelson wrote.

Mendelson recommends that Congress amend the Clean Water Act and the other two acts “to clarify, at least for urgent environmental threats, that judicial review of a compliance order should have to wait.”

Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, in a concurring opinion, also recommends that Congress bring clarity to the Clean Water Act. “Real relief requires Congress to do what it should have done in the first place: provide a reasonably clear rule regarding the reach of the Clean Water Act,” Alito states. Alito’s kind of clarity sounds like a recommendation to gut the Clean Water Act.

What do you think of the Supreme Court’s decision?

Photo credits: Flickr user, brittanylynae

Gina-Marie Cheeseman

Gina-Marie is a freelance writer and journalist armed with a degree in journalism, and a passion for social justice, including the environment and sustainability. She writes for various websites, and has made the 75+ Environmentalists to Follow list by

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