Supreme Court guts EPA’s authority to protect nation’s wetlands

Supreme Court guts EPA’s authority to protect nation’s wetlands

The U.S. Supreme Court has gutted the authority of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to protect the country’s wetlands under the Clean Water Act. 

In the case of Sackett vs. EPA, the court ruled 5-4 to narrow the definition of “Waters of the United States” to only include navigable, stable bodies of water such as lakes, rivers and streams. The ruling removes protections for our country’s wetlands unless they are directly connected to lakes, rivers or streams. The result is devastating for these important bodies of water, which serve as habitats for many species as well as carbon sinks that help mitigate climate change. 

Since its release a week ago, the 5-4 opinion led by Justice Samuel Alito has been heavily criticized for its lack of jurisprudence and “apparent legislating from the bench.” Even the high court’s more conservative justices, Justice Brett Kavanaugh, joined the court’s three liberal appointees in rejecting Justice Alito’s logic.

The ruling has also been criticized for ignoring the direct intent Congress laid out in the Clean Water Act to protect the nation’s waterways from pollution. As Justice Kagan pointed out in her dissenting opinion, the ruling will prevent the EPA from exercising the full authority of the Clean Water Act to protect our nation’s waterways. Instead, the ruling will allow for the destruction of wetlands without meaningful oversight and protection from the EPA. 

It appears the court’s activist opinion is nothing more than a bold attempt at securing rights for property developers to destroy some of the most important ecosystems in the country. Despite the fact that the Clean Water Act does not apply this definition of Waters of the United States, the Supreme Court has decided it will retain the authority to determine the scope of the law. This is not only devastating in its impact on our wetlands, but establishes a scary precedent for further aggressive actions from this court. 

If the conservative majority on the court believes a regulation is too much of a burden on business interests, the court will simply use whatever logic it fabricates to undo the will of Congress. More environmental protections could be next, but so could protections that keep society safe in general. Workplace protections, safeguards for our food, and consumer protections could all falter under the logic established by Justice Alito. It will be essential that states step in to fill the gaps undone by the erosion of federal protections. 

Michigan is one of two states in the nation that have the authority to set its own Wetlands standards under the Clean Water Act. More analysis is being done by Michigan LCV and our partners to understand how Clean Water Act enforcement will proceed in our beloved Great Lakes State. It’s likely that the decisions and interpretations of the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy will be highly consequential and could set some sort of future precedent.

It will be crucial that we preserve what is left here in our state. Michigan has already lost 50% of its wetlands since European colonization. In areas like the Detroit river, the number is as high as 90%. As climate change continues to bring more and more precipitation and strong storm surges, protecting the remaining wetlands which help reduce flooding, will be critical for protecting our state. 

While it is a dark day for water protections, Michigan still has the chance to preserve what is left. 

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