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Reining in Regulatory Overreach: Supreme Court Sets Boundaries for the EPA in Landmark Case

The case of the Sackett's has far reaching implications for both the EPA and other federal agencies

In a seminal ruling that carries significant implications for property owners, the Supreme Court recently delivered an unexpected verdict in a follow-up suit against the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The case of Chantell and Mike Sackett, an ordinary couple with aspirations of building a home near Priest Lake, Idaho, unfolded into a protracted legal battle with the EPA, ultimately culminating in Sackett v. Environmental Protection Agency (2023) reaching the highest court in the land twelve years after the couple first appeared before the Supreme Court. 

The Sacketts embarked on their journey with innocent intentions, they purchased a lot, and, in 2007, they began adding a backfill of sand and rock to their property in preparation for construction. However, their plans took an unexpected turn when the EPA took note, alleging that the backfilling violated the Clean Water Act (CWA) due to the presence of protected wetlands on their land. The EPA promptly issued a compliance letter, stating that the Sacketts should have pursued obtaining a permit and demanded the Sacketts undertake costly restorative measures outlined in a prescribed “Restoration Work Plan.” If Sacketts failed to follow the EPA, they would suffer astronomical penalties to the tune of $40,000 daily. 

The Sacketts first sought a hearing with the EPA, but the administration never granted an audience. In response, the Sacketts filed suit in the Idaho U.S. District Court, but the court granted the EPA’s motion to dismiss the suit on the grounds that “the CWA precludes judicial review of compliance orders before EPA has started an enforcement action in federal court.” Then the Sacketts tried appealing in the Ninth Circuit, again to no avail. The Circuit Court affirmed the lower district court order. 

In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court heard the case, and, in a unanimous decision, decided that the Sacketts could challenge the Clean Water Act (CWA) in court—but that’s not where the legal battle ended.  

The Clean Water Act came to fruition in 1972 as a reorganization and expansion of the Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1948. The aim of the CWA was to prevent the discharge of pollutants into the waters of the United States. The agency’s expansive definition of pollutants encompasses not only chemical waste but also seemingly innocuous substances such as sand and rock. In part, it is this interpretation that led to the Sacketts being ensnared in a legal dispute and accused of violating the CWA.

In addition to the classification of pollutants, another central question lies in the definition of “waters of the United States.” What constitutes these waters? Are they limited to navigable bodies utilized for interstate and foreign commerce, encompassing oceans, lakes, ponds, rivers, streams, and creeks? The conundrum deepens when considering a modest drainage ditch, or even a seemingly insignificant puddle. To use a reductio ad absurdum, not every drop of rainwater would seemingly fall under the EPA’s regulatory purview. But where is the line?   

According to EPA-issued guidelines, the EPA, “instructed officials to assert jurisdiction over wetlands “adjacent” to non-navigable tributaries when those wetlands had “a significant nexus to a traditional navigable water.” A “significant nexus” was said to exist when “‘wetlands, either alone or in combination with similarly situated lands in the region, significantly affect the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of those waters (21-454, pg. 14).” 

Although the guidelines should aim to bring clarity, there was still ambiguous language that was leaving the door open for regulatory expansion. A “significant nexus” is relatively well defined, but how the EPA uses the term “adjacent” stretches the boundaries of reason. 

In common parlance, “adjacent” implies close proximity to a thing. According to Merriam-Webster, it is defined as: “1 a. Not distant: nearby b. Having a common endpoint or border.” This definition comports with the common understanding of the term, but the EPA broadened the definition to include “neighboring.” This allowed the agency to classify wetlands that are tens, or even admittedly by the Army Corps of Engineers, 120 miles from a river (21-454, pg. 20). 

Fortunately, the Supreme Court intervened, and in a case that saw the original Sacketts returning for a second round with the EPA (their first appearance only concerned whether or not the couple could challenge the CWA order in court), dispelled the ambiguity in a decision in favor of the Sacketts. In a 9-0 decision (Kavanaugh, Kagan, and Thomas concurred separately), the Court determined that Sackett’s property was not in violation of the CWA and that, “the CWA extends to only those ‘wet lands with a continuous surface connection to bodies that are ‘waters of the United States’ in their own right,’ so that they are ‘indistinguishable’ from those waters (21-454, pg. 40).” This clear definition delineates the boundaries of the CWA’s purview and puts an end to the EPA’s reliance on vague terms for regulatory expansion. 

Critics of the Supreme Court’s decision have expressed concerns about potential setbacks in environmental health, fearing that relinquishing federal agency control could lead to uncontrolled environmental degradation. “The Supreme Court’s disappointing decision in Sackett v. EPA will take our country backwards.” reads a statement from President Joe Biden. 

However, it is crucial to recognize that the states and local governments wield substantial power over water and land use. The CWA envisioned a cooperative approach throughout the levels of government. States have demonstrated their ability to regulate pollution within their waters effectively and will continue to do so in the future. This shared responsibility ensures environmental protection while preserving individual rights and upholding the intricate balance between federal authority and state powers. As American Farm Bureau Federation (AFPB) President Zippy Duvall adds, “Farmers and ranchers share the goal of protecting the resources they’re entrusted with, but they deserve a rule that provides clarity and doesn’t require a team of attorneys to properly care for their land.”

Beyond its immediate impact on environmental regulation, the ruling in Sackett v EPA establishes a momentous precedent with far-reaching consequences for bureaucratic federal agencies that extend beyond the EPA. In an era where the administrative state wields increasing power, concerns over regulatory overreach loom large. This landmark decision offers hope that the courts, armed with a clear framework, will possess the necessary tools to rein in regulations that exceed their authorized bounds. With this precedent set by the Supreme Court, the judiciary gains the capacity to effectively regulate non-elected officials, preserving the delicate balance of power and respecting constitutional limits.

This, of course, sets the stage for a future, and perhaps an imminent, decision on the Chevron doctrine, which is the deference a government agency is afforded when interpreting a statute that it administers. If the Supreme Court is willing to weigh in on the interpretation of the CWA, it’s plausible that the Court will curtail the leeway granted to federal administrators.

While the removal of pollutants from waterways is a noble and lofty goal, bureaucracies should be tempered from having free reign over statutory interpretation. The Supreme Court’s decision in Sackett v. EPA (2023) does precisely that, providing clarity, defining boundaries, and safeguarding individual rights. This was a victory. 

Spenser Stenmark covers natural resource management, forestry, fire ecology, and other critical policy issues affecting the Pacific Northwest.
Catalyst articles by Spenser Stenmark