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Supreme Court Upholds Clean Water Act

Everglades decision means cleaner water nationwide
March 23, 2004

Discharge to Lake Okeechobee, Florida
38069 — 
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled today that pollutants cannot be pumped into United States waters without a Clean Water Act discharge permit, regardless of whether the pump originates the pollutants or merely conveys pollutants that originate elsewhere. The Court remanded the case back to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida to address remaining factual and legal issues as to whether the waters specific to the case are "meaningfully distinct water bodies."

The decision came in a case brought by the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) over the pumping of pollutants from a stormwater canal into the imperiled Florida Everglades. Under today's ruling, the District can no longer argue that its pump is simply a conduit for pollutants added to the water by others.

"Today's decision is a welcome victory, not just for the Florida Everglades, but for all of our nation's waters," said Howard Fox, the Earthjustice attorney who represented a coalition of seven national environmental groups that filed a brief opposing the SFWMD position. "This ruling prevents the South Florida Water Management District, and many other water managers across the country, from opening a loophole that would allow continued pollution of our nation's precious waters."

The case, South Florida Water Management District v. Miccosukee Tribe, No. 02-626, addressed whether the core protections of the Clean Water Act apply to the District's practice of pumping huge quantities of polluted stormwater uphill from a collection canal in a developed area into a natural wetland area in the Everglades. The river-sized flow of stormwater contains phosphorus and other pollutants.

The water management district has argued that it does not need a Clean Water Act permit because, among other reasons, the pump does not originate the pollutants but merely conveys them from elsewhere. Seven national environmental groups filed an amicus brief with the court arguing that the very essence of the Clean Water Act's point source permit program is to address the "conveyance" of pollutants.

Exempting conveyance from permitting would have opened the door to serious degradation of cleaner waterbodies by pollutants pumped or piped into United States waters, the groups said. Today, the Supreme Court sided with the environmental groups and the original plaintiffs, the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians and Friends of the Everglades, on that key issue.

"No one can avoid responsibility for polluting our waters, whether the pollutants come from a pump or from somewhere else," said Liz Birnbaum, director of government affairs for American Rivers. "Regulating the pumping of pollutants into U.S. waters -- regardless of the source -- is obviously something Congress meant to do."

A ruling in favor of the Water Management District on the conveyance issue would have threatened continued pollution of the Everglades -- a matter of significant concern given recent Florida legislation that substantially postponed deadlines for pollution cleanup. More broadly, the district's conveyance argument held broad implications for the jurisdiction or reach of the country's primary water pollution control law, affecting a host of other wetlands, lakes and rivers around the United States.

"A South Florida Water Management District victory in this case could have opened the floodgates to skyrocketing waste water treatment and storm water pollution in every community in the country," says Jim Murphy, water resources counsel at the National Wildlife Federation.

"Today's decision is helpful to restoration of the Everglades," said Bob Irvin, director of U.S. Conservation for World Wildlife Fund. "Without controlling the conveyance of pollutants, the River of Grass, and the wildlife that depends on it, cannot be restored."

Earthjustice's Washington, DC, office filed an amicus brief on behalf of National Wildlife Federation, Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, American Rivers, National Audubon Society, National Parks Conservation Association, and World Wildlife Fund. The brief opposed South Florida Water Management District's position, and urged affirmance of the Eleventh Circuit court of appeals ruling that the District must apply for a Clean Water Act permit.

"The Water Management District wanted a free pass to dump pollutants into the Everglades, and seriously undermine restoration efforts," said Robin Mann, chair of Sierra Club's National Clean Water Campaign committee. "Today, the Supreme Court placed an important roadblock in their path."

"If the court had failed to support the Clean Water Act, healthy drinking water and restoration projects everywhere -- especially in the Everglades -- could have been threatened," said Bob Perciasepe, chief operating officer at the National Audubon Society. "The Supreme Court recognized this, and refused to allow a harmful loophole in the Act's safeguards."

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To view today's decision click here.

For more information, please contact:

Liz Birnbaum, American Rivers, 202-347-7550, x3015

John Bianchi, Audubon, 212-979-3026

Howard Fox or Cory Magnus, Earthjustice, 202-667-4500

Mary Munson, Suncoast Regional Director, National Parks Conservation Association, 954-649-6327

Nancy Stoner, director, Clean Water Project,

Natural Resources Defense Council, 202-289-2394

Jim Murphy, National Wildlife Federation, 202-797-6893

Robin Mann, Sierra Club, 610-527-4598

Tom Lalley, World Wildlife Fund, 202-778-9544

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Contact:
Cory Magnus, 202-667-4500