US Supreme Court rules in favour of property owners over EPA

21 March 2012 22:25  [Source: ICIS news]

WASHINGTON (ICIS)--The US Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled unanimously in favour of property and business owners in what many regard as a major decision rolling back authority of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

In Sacketts v Environmental Protection Agency (Case No. 10-1062), the US high court was asked to determine whether those targeted by an EPA enforcement action are entitled to a third-party hearing on the merits of the case before the agency imposes a fine, restoration order or some other penalty.

In 2005 Michael and Chantell Sackett purchased a half-acre (0.2ha) lot in a suburban development near Priest Lake, Idaho, where they planned to build a vacation home.

The Sacketts, who operate a contracting and excavation business, began work on the property by bringing in some fill material such as earth and gravel to level the lot.

Three days later, an EPA official arrived at the lot, told a worker there to stop excavating immediately and issued the Sacketts an administrative compliance order (ACO). The order said that the lot was wetlands protected under the Clean Water Act (CWA), and that the Sacketts would have to remove the fill material from the lot or face high daily fines until they complied with the order.

The Sacketts argued that their lot was not wetlands and sought a hearing before EPA officials to contest the agency’s jurisdiction. 

EPA refused, so the Sacketts filed suit in federal court to challenge the agency’s jurisdiction and its enforcement process.

The district court and a federal appellate court both found in favour of the EPA, and the Sacketts sought remedy from the Supreme Court, which agreed to hear their appeal.

In reaching their decision on Wednesday, the nine justices of the high court held that those subject to EPA enforcement actions are indeed entitled to an administrative court review – a low-level and fairly prompt proceeding – before the agency can begin imposing fines for noncompliance, fines that can run as high as $37,500/day (€28,500/day) while the matter is litigated, perhaps for years.

Faced with the prospect of a years-long court battle and perhaps millions of dollars in fines, most US companies and individuals typically comply with EPA orders and abandon whatever plans or projects had been envisioned for their property.

Wednesday’s ruling by the Supreme Court, said Senator Lisa Murkowski (Republican-Alaska), is “a validation of the concerns voiced by so many that EPA has overstepped its authority”.

Murkowski and others have long argued that what they consider the EPA's regulatory overreach places unfair restrictions on energy development in her state and elsewhere in the US.

“The Sacketts’ story exemplifies the impact of EPA overreach on the personal property rights of Americans,” she said, adding: “the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision upholds the right of land owners to have a court review attempts to regulate use of their private property by the EPA”.

The EPA said in a statement that it would comply fully with the Supreme Court’s decision, “which the agency is still reviewing”.

($1 = €0.76)

Paul Hodges studies key influences shaping the chemical industry in Chemicals and the Economy

By: Joe Kamalick
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