'Future of clean water on the line' as Supreme Court takes up challenge to bedrock law
U.S. Supreme Court is seen in Washington, U.S., October 3, 2016. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday began hearing oral arguments in a case that corporate polluters are hoping will take an axe to the Clean Water Act, a bedrock environmental law that protects the nation's streams and wetlands from industry exploitation.

The long-brewing case in question, Sackett v. Environmental Protection Agency, was brought by Idaho couple Chantell and Michael Sackett in partnership with the right-wing Pacific Legal Foundation—and with the backing of industry groups eager to curtail the federal government's authority to regulate and preserve the nation's waterways.

The Sacketts sued after the EPA required them to obtain a federal permit to build on property that contained wetlands adjacent to Idaho's Priest Lake and protected by the Clean Water Act.

The American Petroleum Institute, a powerful oil and gas lobbying group, is among the organizations that have filed amicus briefs urging the Supreme Court to side with the Sacketts and limit the key environmental law.

Listen to the oral arguments in the case: Climate advocates say Sackett v. EPA represents the right-wing Supreme Court's latest opportunity to hamstring the federal government's authority to protect the environment from destructive corporate activity. In June, the Supreme Court handed down a ruling that restricted the EPA's power to rein in greenhouse gas pollution from power plants.

In an analysis of the case's implications, Earthjustice argued last week that Sackett v. EPA "is not about a parcel of land, let alone a lake house, but is a coordinated push by industry polluters that want to blow a hole in the Clean Water Act, bulldoze cherished wetlands, and contaminate the country's streams with waste from mining, oil and gas, and agro-industrial operations as they see fit, just to maximize their profits."

"If the Supreme Court excludes Clean Water Act protections from major wetlands and other waters," the group warned, "the damage to water quality, flood control, and wildlife habit would be severe, and could pose a grave danger to communities across the country, especially low-wealth communities, Indigenous communities, and other communities of color that all too often bear the brunt of toxic pollution, flooding, and excessive industrial development."

The Sacketts and their supporters are specifically asking the conservative-dominated Supreme Court to adopt a narrower definition of "waters of the United States" that the Clean Water Act protects—an objective that the Trump administration pursued in 2020 before being rebuffed in court.

Critics of the Sacketts' case and their proposed definition of protected waters argue that the narrower interpretation of the Clean Water Act would strip thousands of miles of U.S. waters and wetlands of federal protections, imperiling drinking water, Indigenous sites, and wildlife.

"This decision will be nothing short of a life-or-death sentence for coho salmon, razorback suckers, California tiger salamanders, and hundreds of other endangered animals that rely on ephemeral and intermittently flowing streams and wetlands," said Hannah Connor, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, in a statement.

In an amicus brief submitted earlier this year, a group of senators including Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) argued that "the industry-funded and industry-promoted arguments made" by the Sacketts and their backers "have been repeatedly rejected by the court, and would empower and enrich polluting corporations at the expense of public health, welfare, and the environment."

"The court should refuse to participate in this industry-driven project," the brief continued. "Reversals of precedent that reek of politics, and are advanced by thinly-disguised but highly motivated industry front groups, create a 'stench' that is likely to undermine the public's remaining faith in the court."