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Biden administration adjusts wetland protections to conform with Supreme Court verdict

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The Biden administration has reevaluated its stance on environmental preservation, leading to the removal of safeguard measures for a significant portion of the nation’s wetlands.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in an official statement released on Tuesday, disclosed a finalized regulation that refines the parameters for defining “waters of the United States” as outlined in the Clean Water Act.

Attributing this alteration to the recent Supreme Court case, Sackett v EPA, which introduced limitations on wetland protection, the EPA explained that this decision was prompted by the conservative-majority court’s ruling in May. The court stipulated that wetlands must possess a “continuous surface connection” to streams, rivers, oceans, and lakes to qualify for protection under the Clean Water Act.

Expressing his sentiments, EPA administrator Michael Regan conveyed disappointment with the Sackett verdict while stressing the agency’s commitment to working with state co-regulators, Tribes, and partners to implement the ruling, as indicated in Tuesday’s press release.

Regan stated, “Moving forward, we will do everything we can with our existing authorities and resources to help communities, states, and Tribes protect the clean water upon which we all depend.”

Backtracking on Environmental Safeguards

The Biden administration, previously critical of the Supreme Court’s decision, found itself dealing with another rollback in its environmental policies. The Sackett case marks the second instance where the administration’s efforts to safeguard the environment have been hindered.

In 2022, the Supreme Court curtailed the EPA’s authority under the Clean Air Act, limiting its power to regulate carbon emissions. White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre expressed dissatisfaction with the court’s decisions, stating, “The way that we see it, court’s decision today aims to take our country backwards. It will jeopardise the sources of clean drinking water for farmers, businesses and millions of Americans.”

A Look into the Clean Water Act

The Clean Water Act, initially established in 1948, restricted the amount of pollution that could be discharged into “navigable waters.” While the core of the law dates back to this era, the amendments introduced in 1977 expanded its scope to include wetland protections. These revisions were pivotal in extending pollution controls to cover the nation’s vast wetland expanse, encompassing approximately 307 million hectares (76 million acres), as estimated by the government at the time.

Implications of the Sackett Case

The Sackett case thrust the EPA’s authority over wetlands into question. The lawsuit centered around Michael and Chantell Sackett, a couple who intended to construct a home on a plot of land adjacent to Idaho’s Priest Lake.

The EPA intervened, arguing that the Sacketts hadn’t acquired the necessary permits to build on the wetlands encompassing the lake. The couple contested the EPA’s decision in court, garnering support from business interests that had long been critical of the limitations set by the Clean Water Act.

In a narrow five-to-four ruling, the Supreme Court sided with the Sacketts, decrying the “vague” nature of the regulations concerning water bodies outlined in the law. The court also expressed concerns about the expansive definition of wetlands, referencing a previous case that estimated wetlands covered up to 121 million hectares (300 million acres) in the United States.

Adjustments and Immediate Impact

In response to the Supreme Court’s decision, the EPA unveiled a revised perspective on Tuesday that immediately narrows the scope of waterways protected under the Clean Water Act.

The agency bypassed the usual protocol for public input, justifying this deviation by stating that such commentary was unnecessary post the Supreme Court’s ruling. The EPA reasoned that a delay in enforcing the new regulations would lead to confusion and potential project delays.

Experts are predicting that this verdict from the Supreme Court could result in at least half of all US wetlands losing their protections under the Clean Water Act.

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