Statement: Supreme Court ruling is devastating setback for clean water

Media Contacts
John Rumpler

Senior Director, Clean Water for America Campaign and Senior Attorney, Environment America Research & Policy Center

Wetlands - Great Marsh of the Indiana Dunes

Decision in Sackett v. EPA leaves many wetlands without federal protection against pollution or degradation

WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court issued a decision Thursday that removes federal protection for millions of acres of the United States’ remaining wetlands. In Sackett v. EPA, the Court ruled that only wetlands with a continuous surface connection with other waterways are protected by the Clean Water Act. Wetlands are vital to our ecosystems — filtering out pollutants, providing wildlife habitat and protecting communities from flooding.

Environment America Research & Policy Center has been working to protect the nation’s waters against pollution and degradation for nearly 20 years — issuing research reports, generating public comments and organizing the support of key constituencies. Our partners at Environment America have also participated in litigation to defend the Clean Water Act.

In response to the EPA rule, John Rumpler, Environment America Research & Policy Center’s clean water program senior director released the following statement: 

“This Supreme Court decision represents a misguided interpretation of the Clean Water Act  — our nation’s bedrock environmental law for more than 50 years. Congress explicitly referenced wetlands in the Clean Water Act, and courts have generally interpreted the law’s scope expansively – in light of its stated objective ‘to restore and main­tain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters.’

“The Court’s 5-4 majority opinion explicitly rejected the much broader ‘significant nexus’ test for determining protected waters, which courts have generally followed since Justice Kennedy’s concurring opinion in the Rapanos case in 2006. In short, today’s ruling in Sackett is the narrowest interpretation of the Act to ever receive five votes on the Court, and it puts many of our waterways at greater risk of pollution and degradation.

“From the Great Lakes to the Chesapeake Bay, America waterways depend on wetlands.They are the kidneys of our ecosystem, filtering out pollution that can threaten the health of swimmers, wildlife and our drinking water. Already, our nation has lost vast expanses of wetlands to sprawl, mining, pipelines and more. These wetlands also protect our communities from flooding — a need that only grows more urgent as climate change causes more torrential storms and rising sea levels.

“Yet today, our nation’s highest court chose to gut the Act’s protections for vast acres of wetlands, excluding all but those with a ‘continuous surface connection’ — the Court’s phrase, which appears nowhere in the Act itself — to a river, lake or other waterway. After this decision, the federal government — and citizens who rely on the Clean Water Act in court — will be powerless to stop developers, mining operators and oil and gas companies from degrading or polluting these wetlands, putting our wildlife, drinking water and communities at risk.

“Only Congress can restore these federal protections. In the meantime, it is imperative that state and local officials act immediately to adopt and enforce stronger policies to safeguard clean water and wetlands in particular.”