The US supreme court has sided with an Idaho couple who have waged a long-running legal battle to build a house on wetlands near one of the state’s largest lakes, shrinking the scope of a landmark law to protect America’s waterways.
In a ruling passed down on Thursday, the conservative-dominated court decided that the federal government was wrong to use the Clean Water Act, a key 50-year-old piece of legislation to prevent pollution seeping into rivers, streams and lakes, to prevent the couple building over the wetland beside Priest Lake in Idaho.
In effect, the justice’ decision overhauls the definition of whether wetlands are considered “navigable waters” under the act and are therefore federally protected.
In a statement, President Joe Biden said that the ruling upends the legal framework used for decades to combat water pollution and that his administration will “use every legal authority we have to protect our nation’s waters”.
“It puts our nation’s wetlands – and the rivers, streams, lakes and ponds connected to them – at risk of pollution and destruction, jeopardizing the sources of clean water that millions of American families, farmers and businesses rely on,” Biden said of the ruling.
An environmental group that has opposed the case reaching the supreme court, Earthjustice has said that half of all the wetlands in the contiguous US, ecosystems prized as habitat for fish, waterfowl and other wildlife as well as being critical natural purifiers of water, will now lose their protections under the Clean Water Act.
Justice Samuel Alito, writing for himself, Chief Justice John Roberts and justices Clarence Thomas, Neil Gorsuch and Amy Coney Barrett ruled that the Clean Water Act can only protect “wetlands with a continuous surface connection to bodies that are waters of the United States in their own rights”.
The judgment is said to be the latest blow to environmental regulations dealt by the supreme court, which last year curtailed the government’s ability to limit greenhouse gas pollution from power plants.
Environmental groups are reported to have accused the court, along with Republican-led states and industry interests, of threatening bedrock protections to nature in the US.
Story was adapted from the Guardian.