High court hands blow to wetlands

A US Supreme Court decision yesterday placing limits on wetlands protection is raising new questions about how far the federal government can now go in safeguarding the environment.

Business groups and local governments applaud the court ruling, which effectively returned oversight to the states. But environmental groups worry that many hard-fought federal protections are being swept away as the court continues to erode federal power.

It comes at a time when the incoming Bush administration faces scrutiny on which tack it will take on sensitive environmental issues.

In a 5-to-4 decision, the Supreme Court justices found that the federal Clean Water Act of 1972 did not extend to seasonal ponds used by migratory birds. A group of localities in suburban Chicago is looking to build a landfill atop such ponds.

"Permitting the [government] to claim federal jurisdiction over ponds and mudflats," such as those in the Illinois case, "would also result in a significant impingement of the states' traditional and primary power over land and water use," Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote for the majority.

Environmentalists worry that large tracts of sensitive wetland will be opened up to unregulated development.

"This decision has potentially devastating effects for our nation's efforts to protect water quality," says Derb Carter, a North Carolina lawyer who specializes in wetlands law at the Southern Environmental Law Center.

"The court has, in this decision, turned the clock back 23 years on a clear understanding of what the Clean Water Act extends protection to." Mr. Carter says it's troubling to see the court's efforts to return more power to the states extend into the arena of environmental protection.

While the court upheld the challenge to the clean-water law based on language, it did not decide the constitutional question of whether Congress intended the law to extend to such wetlands.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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