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Supreme Court lets citizens contest government on water permits

The Supreme Court unanimously ruled that property owners can contest whether a property falls under the jurisdiction of the 1972 Clean Water Act.

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    The Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled unanimously that a Minnesota company could file a lawsuit against the US Army Corps of Engineers over the agency's determination that its land is off limits to peat mining under the Clean Water Act.
    J. Scott Applewhite/AP
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The U.S. Supreme Court dealt a setback to federal authorities on environmental law by ruling on Tuesday that property owners can challenge the government over the need for costly permits under a water protection statute in a Minnesota peat mine dispute.

The court decided 8-0 in favor of North Dakota-based Hawkes Co Inc, which challenged a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers finding that the property at issue includes wetlands protected by the 1972 U.S. Clean Water Act from potential pollution. That law mandates that property owners get permits in such situations.

Hawkes planned to mine peat, which forms in wetlands and has agricultural, horticultural and energy uses, from property owned by two affiliated companies in northwestern Minnesota.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the ruling that when the government decides a property falls under the Clean Water Act's jurisdiction, property owners can contest that finding in court. Previously, they could challenge that determination only at the end of the permitting process, which can last two years and cost up to $270,000, with owners facing penalties of up to $37,500 a day for noncompliance.

"Today's ruling marks a long-awaited victory for individual liberty, property rights and the rule of law," said Reed Hopper of the conservative Pacific Legal Foundation, who argued the case before the court for Hawkes.

"Everyone who values property rights and access to justice should welcome this historic victory," Hopper added.

The Army Corps had decided the company must obtain a permit from the federal government because the property was a wetland.

Whether a specific parcel of land comes under the law's jurisdiction is critical to developers and other property owners because such a finding sets in motion the time-consuming and expensive permitting process.

A federal district court dismissed Hawkes' suit but the St. Louis-based 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2015 reversed that action. President Barack Obama's administration then appealed to the Supreme Court.

Business groups including the National Association of Home Builders and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, as well as 29 states, filed court papers backing Hawkes.

The case follows the justices' 2012 ruling that property owners facing enforcement action under the Clean Water Act can ask a court to intervene before being forced to comply or pay financial penalties.

The Obama administration last year issued a new regulation to clarify which bodies of water are covered by the Clean Water Act. A federal appeals court put that rule on hold after it was challenged by 18 states.

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