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The Supreme Court rolls back federal safeguards for wetlands under the Clean Water Act


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People visit the front of the US Supreme Court building on April 19, 2023 in Washington, DC.


The Supreme Court on Thursday slashed the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to regulate wetlands under the Clean Water Act, with a 5-4 majority rolling back federal safeguards in a long-running dispute between the government and a couple who own property in Idaho.

The decision continues a trend in which the conservative-leaning court has narrowed the reach of environmental regulations, this time with Justice Amy Coney Barrett apparently providing the deciding vote for the majority.

Justice Samuel Alito, writing for himself, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas, Neil Gorsuch and Barrett concluded that the Clean Water Act covers only those “wetlands with a continuous surface connection to bodies that are waters of the United States in their own right. ”

The decision is a victory for Chantell and Michael Sackett, who bought a vacant lot near Idaho’s Priest Lake. Three years later, they broke ground in hopes of building a family home, but quickly became embroiled in a regulatory dispute. When they began filling the property with 1,700 cubic yards of sand and gravel to create a stable grade, the EPA sent them an order halting construction.

“The wetlands on the Sackett property are distinguishable from all possible covered waters,” Alito wrote, because they are not directly connected to them.

Alito said the wetland should have a “continuous surface connection with that water, making it difficult to determine where the water ends and the wetland begins.”

Justice Brett Kavanaugh, writing for himself and Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Ketanji Brown Jackson, agreed that the Sacketts should prevail but would have ruled for them on a narrower basis without changing the statutory definition in question: “Waters of the United States .”

Kavanaugh insisted that the areas to be regulated did not have to physically touch an adjacent waterway to constitute “waters of the United States.”

“By narrowing the (Clean Water) Act’s coverage of wetlands to only contiguous wetlands,” Kavanaugh wrote, “the court’s new test will leave some long-regulated contiguous wetlands no longer covered by the Clean Water Act, with significant consequences for water quality and flood control across the United States .”

CNN has reached out to the EPA and the Justice Department for comment.

This story is breaking and will be updated.

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