The Supreme Court could limit federal protection against water pollution

Priest Lake
Priest Lake minka6/Getty Images

At the start of its new term on Monday, the Supreme Court will hear a case that could limit the Environmental Protection Agency's ability to regulate water pollution. The case, Sackett v. EPA (2022), concerns the Clean Water Act passed in 1972, a landmark piece of environmental legislation against pollution.

Chantell and Michael Sackett have been involved in a 15-year dispute with the EPA regarding whether or not they could build a house on their property near Idaho's Priest Lake, Time reports. In 2007, the EPA rejected their request because the property contained wetlands under the protection of the Clean Water Act. In 2012, the Sacketts appealed to the Supreme Court but the case was sent back to a district court. The case was appealed again and will now be heard in the high court.

The Supreme Court is the most conservative it has been in decades, spelling trouble for the EPA. The Clean Water Act prevents pollution on all "waters of the United States," or WOTUS, a vague phrase that has never properly been defined in courts. However, given the court's current makeup, many believe the court will adopt former Justice Antonin Scalia's definition from Rapanos v. U.S. (2006), another case that dealt with WOTUS, excluding most wetlands and streams from the protection, Vox reports. The Court has already limited the EPA's control over air pollution in West Virginia v. EPA (2022).

This outcome "would be catastrophic," says Jon Devine of the Natural Resources Defense Council, "for the water quality purposes of the act."

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