(Adds details of judgment and background, paragraphs 3-12)
By John Kruzel and Nate Raymond
May 25 (Reuters) – The US Supreme Court on Thursday again limited the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulatory influence, ruling in favor of an Idaho couple who have long tried to build a home on property the EPA classified as hazardous classified as a protected wetland under a landmark federal pollution control law.
In a 9-0 decision, the judges overturned a lower court’s ruling against couple Chantell and Mike Sackett, which upheld the EPA’s finding that their property contained wetlands near a lake that are protected by the Clean Water Act from 1972 were protected. However, the judges unanimously agreed to overturn the lower court’s decision, differing in their reasoning.
The ruling was the latest instance in which the court supported a challenge to the extent of EPA’s ability to regulate environmental issues under applicable law. In a 6-3 ruling last June, supported by its conservative judges, the court limited the EPA’s powers to pass broad regulations on greenhouse gas emissions from existing coal and gas-fired power plants under another environmental law, the Clean Air Act enacted .
The case decided Thursday stemmed from the Sacketts’ purchase of a vacant lot in 2004 about 300 feet (90 meters) from Priest Lake, one of the largest lakes in Idaho, near the US-Canada border. In 2007, the couple began preparations for the construction of a house.
However, after the EPA filled in sand and gravel on the property, it issued an administrative order stating that the property contained wetlands protected by the Clean Water Act and that they needed a building permit, which they however, had not received.
This law bans the discharge of pollutants, including rocks and sand, into “United States waters,” which regulators have said for decades cover not only navigable waters but also adjacent wetlands such as swamps, marshes, and berms.
The story goes on
For decades, courts and regulators have debated the extent to which a property must be connected to a waterway in order to require a permit. The Supreme Court issued a ruling in 2006 that created further uncertainty.
Four judges at the time said the law governed land with a “continuous surface connection” to a waterway, while Justice Anthony Kennedy, who cast the deciding vote in the 5-4 case and is now retired, said the law extended further to areas in which it was a “significant connection” to a waterway.
The Sacketts had asked the Supreme Court to reconsider the matter after the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals relied on Kennedy’s test to uphold a judge’s finding that the Sacketts’ property contained wetlands.
The dispute previously made its way to the Supreme Court when the judges unanimously ruled in 2012 that the couple could challenge the EPA’s compliance order in court, facing financial penalties if they failed to comply.
Thursday’s court ruling came after President Joe Biden’s administration passed a rule in December that expands the definition of waterways protected by the Clean Water Act — a reversal from the era of former President Donald Trump. Biden in April vetoed a move by Congress aimed at repealing the rule.
A federal judge in North Dakota on April 12 temporarily blocked implementation of the rule in 24 states in response to a lawsuit by mostly Republican-run states. In a separate ruling on March 19, a Texas federal judge blocked enforcement of the rule in Texas and Idaho at the request of Republican attorneys general amid legal challenges to the new rule. Also in Kentucky, the ruling was stopped by the US Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals on May 10 while the state appealed a lower court’s decision. (Reporting by John Kruzel; additional reporting by Andrew Chung in New York; editing by Will Dunham)