Imagine spending the money, time, and effort to build a new home only to have federal bureaucrats inform you that if you backfill your property with dirt and rocks, you must either pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines or risk becoming a criminal. That is what happened to Idaho residents Michael and Chantell Sackett at the hands of the Environmental Protection Agency , and it almost ruined them. Thankfully, the Supreme Court stepped in with a decision that will hopefully curb bureaucratic overreach and signal that other regulations never passed by Congress will similarly be tossed in the wastebasket.
The Sacketts drew attention from the EPA because their property was across the street from a tributary so small it was not named. That tributary fed into a small non-navigable creek. That non-navigable creek fed into Priest Lake. Because the EPA has jurisdiction over “lakes” under the Clean Water Act, the EPA felt that it could punish the Sacketts if they backfilled the foundation of their house. The agency was concerned the “soil and gravel” the Sacketts used would somehow see itself across the street into a tributary, then into a creek, and then finally into a distant lake.
The court’s decision in this case is significant for a couple of reasons, starting with the fact that it helps limit federal agencies to the statutory text that gave them power in the first place. The EPA had been claiming jurisdiction far beyond the authority Congress wrote into the Clean Water Act. In the Sacketts’ case, for example, the EPA claimed it was enforcing a provision of the act that gives the agency jurisdiction over “waters of the United States,” which can include wetlands if connected to a stream, ocean, river, or lake. The EPA claimed the unnamed tributary was a “wetland.”
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