Supreme Court Strikes Down EPA’s Narrow Interpretation of Clean Water Act

On April 23, 2020, the Supreme Court ruled that sewage plants and other industries are not exempt from environmental requirements when they send contaminated water through indirect routes to rives, oceans, and other waterways that can be navigated.

In a 6-3 ruling, the court rejected the Trump administration’s interpretation that the discharge of water pollution into the ground, instead of directly into neighboring ways, does not exempt an organization from complying with the Clean Water Act.

“We hold that the statute requires a permit when there is a direct discharge from a point source into navigable waters or when there is the functional equivalent of a direct discharge,” Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in the decision.

The Environmental Protection Agency under the Trump administration’s watch revised the agency’s position that has allegedly worked well for over 30 years in Breyer’s view. A similar action to revise environmental policy included a broad rollback of the Clean Water Act that would no longer have subject millions of miles of wetlands to federal projections. Public and environmental interest groups argue that the Trump administration’s deregulation measures would have waterways more susceptible to pollution from development, farms, and farms. They vowed to continue fighting these measures in the courts.

In this case, Justices Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch and Clarence Thomas offered dissenting opinions. “Based on the statutory text and structure, I would hold that a permit is required only when a point source discharges pollutants directly into navigable waters,” Thomas wrote.

David Henkin, a lawyer for the environmental group Earthjustice who argued against the Trump administration, said, “This is unquestionably a win for people who are concerned about protecting clean water in the United States.”

That said, the court did not make as expansive as a ruling like the federal appeals court did, which established a standard that would have subjected more groundwater discharges to be under the purview of the clean water law.