SCOTUS Hands Mining, Developers Win in 'Gutting' Wetlands Protections
Friday, May 26, 2023
Environmental groups are decrying a U.S. Supreme Court decision they say will have major impacts for how the Clean Water Act is implemented.
The justices ruled 5-4 on Thursday in favor of narrowing the scope of federal protections so they no longer apply to wetlands in most circumstances.
Janette Brimmer, a senior attorney in the Earthjustice Seattle office, said the decision guts wetland protections under the Clean Water Act.
"That basically handed a victory to industry - like the mining industry, developers, big ag - that they have been pushing for for years," she said, "and pretty much undid 50 years' worth of clean-water protections for those water bodies."
Brimmer said it could affect up to 90 million acres of wetlands across the country.
Justices sided with an Idaho couple, the Sacketts, who sued the Environmental Protection Agency after the couple was denied a federal permit to build their home. In the majority opinion, Justice Samuel Alito wrote that Clean Water Act protections only extend to wetlands "indistinguishable" from larger bodies of water.
Brimmer said the country is rapidly losing its wetlands, which has major consequences. Wetlands areas help control flooding and provide a crucial role in storing large amounts of carbon. She said they also help keep drinking water clean.
"They're really important for filtering pollutants," she said. "In other words, they're sort of like a natural sponge, and they take up and cleanse pollutants with the plants and the soils."
Brimmer said Washington state has some wetlands protections, but notes safeguards are much weaker in other states. However, she said, lawmakers in Washington, D.C., could spell out better wetlands protections.
"Congress could just fix this," she said. "I mean, Congress - when it first passed the Clean Water Act - it did so because states had been doing such a terrible job protecting waters for decades, despite receiving billions in tax dollars."
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