The Supreme Court gave environmentalists a reason to celebrate on Thursday.
In a 6–3 decision, the high court ruled that the Clean Water Act requires that a permit be obtained “for either a direct discharge of pollutants into federally regulated rivers and oceans or its ‘functional equivalent,'” The Hill reported.
Writing for the majority, Justice Stephen Breyer presented a hypothetical scenario in which “a sewage treatment plant discharges polluted water into the ground where it mixes with groundwater” and potentially ends up in the ocean.
“Must the plant’s owner seek an EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] permit before emitting the pollutant?” the associate justice inquired, according to The Hill. “We conclude that [a permit is required] if the addition of the pollutants through groundwater is the functional equivalent of a direct discharge from the point source into navigable waters.”
Alito cites lack of consistency
According to The Hill, the case revolved around a dispute in Hawaii over whether Maui County violated the law by injecting the ground with wastewater that ultimately made its way to the Pacific Ocean.
Breyer was joined in the majority ruling by fellow liberal Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, according to The Hill. Also signing on were Justice Brett Kavanaugh and Chief Justice John Roberts.
Voting in opposition were three members of the court’s conservative wing: Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, and Neil Gorsuch, each of whom authored dissents, the Washington Examiner reported.
“If the Court is going to devise its own legal rules, instead of interpreting those enacted by Congress, it might at least adopt rules that can be applied with a modicum of consistency,” Alito argued, according to the Examiner.
He went on: “Here, however, the Court makes up a rule that provides no clear guidance and invites arbitrary and inconsistent application.”
Thomas wants a clearer explanation
For his part, Thomas pointed out that the decision “ultimately does little to explain how functionally equivalent an indirect discharge must be to require a permit.”
“The Court suggests that the EPA could clarify matters through ‘administrative guidance,’ but so far the EPA has provided only limited advice and recently shifted its position. In any event, the sort of ‘general rules’ that the Court hopes the EPA will promulgate are constitutionally suspect,” the justice added in his dissent.
Environmentalists appear to have scored another victory with this week’s ruling, which makes it even more important that supporters of President Donald Trump ensure he has another four years to nominate strong conservatives for judicial positions at every federal level.