Court Throws Out Industry's Challenge to Clean Water Act Permits


Decision supports conservationists, blocks attempt to further weaken stream and wetland protection

A federal court today rejected industry attempts to weaken nationwide dredge-and-fill permits for commercial and residential development projects, mining, and other environmentally damaging activities. Nationwide permits already cause substantial harm to wetlands and streams, according to the environmental groups that opposed the industry arguments, and weakening them would have increased the damage to the environment and economy.

“This decision sends a message to industry: you cannot have free rein to destroy our nation’s streams and wetlands,” said Earthjustice attorney Howard Fox, who intervened in the industry suit on behalf of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Sierra Club. “Everyone who cares about protecting our nation’s waters can give thanks today for this decision.”

(The decision from the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia was issued in National Association of Home Builders v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, et al., D.D.C. 00cv379 RJL and consolidated cases.)

Under the Clean Water Act, discharge of dredged or fill material into US waters requires a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers. Normally, would-be polluters must apply for such permits individually. However, if the Corps identifies a category of activities that would have only minimal environmental impact, it can issue a general permit — that is, a blanket authorization for all activities in the category, without the normal individual scrutiny and opportunity for public input. In the past, the Corps has issued various general permits — known as nationwide permits — which apply across the country.

In 2000 and again in 2002, the Corps revised and reissued numerous nationwide permits. Industry sued to weaken these permits, seeking to gain broader blanket authorization to pollute wetlands and streams. Earthjustice intervened on behalf of NRDC and Sierra Club to oppose the industry suits.

“The court rightly rejected this brazen attempt to reinstate permits allowing blanket wetlands and stream destruction, which would mean more contaminated drinking water supplies, polluted beachwater, loss of wildlife habitat, and flooding,” said Nancy Stoner, an attorney with NRDC.

By granting nationwide permits, the Corps essentially approves in advance environmentally destructive activities without requiring additional review of individual projects’ impact. Some of these permits, issued under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act, have allowed the authorization of tens of thousands of wetland-destroying projects.

Over a four-year regulatory process concluding in 2000, the Corps reviewed and revised its Section 404 nationwide permits to restrict the range of activities for which no individual permit is required. Some of the Corps’ revised permits include such safeguards such as limits on the size of the affected area, advance notice requirements, and geographic restrictions.

In January 2002, the Bush administration weakened the 2000 permit in response to industry complaints, but industry was still dissatisfied. The National Association of Home Builders and other industry groups challenged these revised nationwide permits, seeking a return to the days when they had much wider leeway to destroy wetlands without obtaining project-by-project permits.

“The court decision is a major victory for America’s wetlands, streams, and sources of drinking water, but we still have a long way to go to halt the rubber-stamping of activities that destroy these resources,” said Robin Mann with Sierra Club. “We must ensure that these critical resources are given the protections intended under the Clean Water Act.”  

Read the decision (PDF)

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