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Court Opts to Protect Private-Property Rights Over Wetlands

by Danielle Smith, Keystone State News Connection

May 31, 2023

From conservation to sportsmen’s groups, the U.S. Supreme Court is getting plenty of backlash over its most recent ruling, which weakens federal protections for wetlands.

The 5-4 decision in Sackett v. EPA means wetlands are only protected by the Clean Water Act if they have a “continuous surface connection” with a larger, navigable body of water.

Sam Sankar, senior vice president of programs for EarthJustice, warned the ruling puts millions of acres of wetlands at risk, including in Pennsylvania.

“According to the National Wetlands Inventory, there are just over half a million acres of wetlands in Pennsylvania, and all of those wetlands are threatened by the decision of the Supreme Court,” Sankar asserted.

The ruling is a victory for an Idaho couple who sued the Environmental Protection Agency after being denied a federal permit to build a home on land which included wetlands. Sankar noted some farmers, developers, and landowners may cheer the decision but might not understand the benefits of wetlands to the environment, in terms of flood control, water quality, and wildlife habitat.

Sankar added the ruling imperils the safety of drinking water for millions of Pennsylvanians whose drinking water sources are downstream of wetlands no longer protected from pollution or development following the court’s decision.

“If wetlands aren’t protected, there’s going to be more pollution, more flooding, more drought,”
Sankar projected. “And that means that surface waters that are inextricably intertwined with the wetlands are going to be degraded as well. Those surface waters are often the place where our communities get their water from, and so, eliminating protection for wetlands threatens drinking water.”

Sankar stressed Earthjustice is among the groups asking Congress to use its power to negate the ruling. Some states also have said they will enforce their own, state-level protections.

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