The Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled against the Obama administration in a case regarding water pollution permits.
The nation’s highest court ruled unanimously that a landowner can appeal through the federal court system a determination from the Army Corps of Engineers that a water body is subject to federal jurisdiction and permit requirements under the Clean Water Act.
The court’s eight justices agreed in Army Corps of Engineers v. Hawkes Co. Inc. that the Corps’s final “jurisdictional determination” regarding a peat mining company’s wetlands is a “final agency action,” so the company can challenge it like any regulation.
The case is likely to have consequences for the federal government’s entire enforcement of the Clean Water Act, the main law regarding pollution control.
The Corps and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have dual enforcement authority for water pollution, but only if they determine that the water at issue falls under the “waters of the United States” standard. That determination means the landowner needs federal permits for any activity that would pollution or otherwise harm the water body.
The agencies last year made final a new regulation to expand the waterways that are covered under that jurisdiction, but the rule has been put on hold while it is litigated.
The case was watched closely by opponents of that rule and of the Obama administration’s environmental agenda, who saw the case as a key way to fight against executive overreach and in favor of property rights.
The central dispute in the Supreme Court’s case was whether a jurisdictional determination carries legal consequences, a necessary component in order for the decision to be a “final” agency action. The Obama administration argued that since new information can change the finding, it is not like final actions.
But writing for the court, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that since the finding is definitive and binding on federal government agencies, it satisfies the requirement.