Press Release | May 25, 2023

U.S. Supreme Court sides with polluters, abandons basic protections for America’s clean water and communities

Environmental advocates rally as the Supreme Court reviews the Sackett case at the Supreme Court of the United States on October 03, 2022 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Paul Morigi/Getty Images for Protect our Waters)

WASHINGTON—The U.S. Supreme Court today severely restricted the government’s ability to protect critical streams, wetlands, and other waterways that shield families and communities across the South and the nation from pollution and damaging floods.  

“Families and communities are now at greater risk from pollution and flooding because the Supreme Court abandoned longstanding clean water protections and decades of consistent bipartisan practice,” said Nick Torrey, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, which filed a friend of the court brief in the case. “To try to make up for the bedrock protections taken away from people today, we will all need to make our voices heard to demand stronger clean water protections. The Southern Environmental Law Center will keep fighting to protect communities and clean water using every tool at our disposal.” 

The Southern Environmental Law Center, representing more than 110 environmental and community organizations, joined by the Natural Resources Defense Council, had urged the U.S. Supreme Court to uphold longstanding federal clean water protections.  

Wetlands help buffer Southern communities from increasingly intense storms, act as natural pollution filters that improve our water quality, and protect wildlife as well as fish and shellfish for our fisheries. When it rains, wetlands act like natural sponges that absorb flood waters, lowering flood levels and slowing the rise of waters downstream—a life-saving combination. 

If we don’t keep our small streams and other upstream waterways clean, the water downstream that most Americans drink and use in our daily lives is at risk. 

The case, Sackett v. EPA, was brought by developers who, along with many industrial polluters, asked the court to overturn decades of bipartisan consistent practice and drastically cut the scope of the Clean Water Act. 

For 50 years, the Clean Water Act has protected America’s families and communities by preventing unchecked pollution from contaminating our waterways and drinking water sources and preventing the destruction of beneficial wetlands. This national law has been the central tool used by state governments to protect the clean water our communities need. A bipartisan Congress enacted the Clean Water Act with a single objective: to restore and maintain the integrity of our nation’s waters. Congress rejected earlier failed approaches that largely left water pollution to a patchwork of ineffective state laws and instead adopted a comprehensive approach with consistent minimum standards to protect waterways throughout the country. Today’s decision drastically cuts back the Clean Water Act’s protections; as Justice Kavanaugh stated in his opinion, this narrowing of the Act will have “significant repercussions for water quality and flood control throughout the United States.” 

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