NRDC Denounces Supreme Court Decision on Clean Water Act Protection

Group says high court ignores precedent by allowing landfill in suburban Chicago

WASHINGTON (January 9, 2001) - NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) sharply criticized the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision today that the Clean Water Act does not protect small, isolated bodies of water, such as vernal pools or prairie potholes. By a five-to-four vote, the court specifically ruled that the Army Corps of Engineers cannot stop a group of communities in suburban Chicago from building a landfill on top of seasonal ponds used by migrating birds.

"Those who want to pave over the last remaining vestiges of undeveloped wetlands will consider this decision -- which will destroy the second largest Great Blue Heron breeding colony in northeastern Illinois -- to be a great victory," said Daniel Rosenberg, an attorney with NRDC’s Clean Water Project. "But this could be the beginning of the end for hundreds of thousands of migratory birds that rely on wetlands habitat across the country.

"We believe that the court misread both the text and the legislative history of the Clean Water Act and misapplied their previous holdings in related cases," he added. "By ignoring their own precedent, the five justices revealed their activist agenda to weaken our most important environmental laws."

The opinion overturns the Army Corps of Engineers’ interpretation of its authority under the Clean Water Act to protect "waters of the United States." Although the court has previously held that wetlands adjacent to rivers and streams met the definition of "navigable waters" the filling of which could be regulated by Corps it held today that so-called "isolated waters," such as the ponds at issue in the case, are not within the scope of the Corps’ authority.

"As a result of this decision, if a state does not act quickly to protect isolated waters and wetlands, thousands of acres of critical habitat could be lost, leaving migratory birds and hundreds of other species, many of them endangered, with nowhere to live, eat, rest or reproduce," Rosenberg said. "Read broadly, today’s decision potentially eliminates federal control over discharges from factories, sewage treatment plants, and other ‘point sources’ into intrastate, isolated bodies of water."

NRDC urges Congress to pass legislation to reverse this decision by amending the Clean Water Act to reaffirm that isolated waters and wetlands are protected under the act. "We hope that President-elect Bush’s nominees to head the Environmental Protection Agency and the Interior Department will speak out in strong support for such legislation," said Rosenberg.