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The Supreme Court ruled yesterday that new limits could be placed on the federal government's power to enforce the 34-year-old Clean Water Act, but a set of opinions handed down by the justices did little to define what those limits might be.
In yesterday's ruling, a five-justice majority agreed that the Army Corps of Engineers, the lead federal agency on wetlands regulation, exceeded its authority when it denied two Michigan developers permits to build on wetlands. The court said the Corps had gone beyond the Clean Water Act by making landowners obtain permits to dump rocks and dirt not only in marshes directly next to lakes and rivers but also in areas linked to larger bodies of water only through a network of ditches and drains.
But there was no clear majority as to where the Corps should have drawn the line...
The net effect of the most important Clean Water Act case to reach the court in recent years was thus neither the outright rollback of federal wetlands regulation that property rights advocates have long sought nor the reaffirmation of the Clean Water Act that environmental organizations had desired.