A Supreme Court case that environmental lawyers at Earthjustice called "the clean water case of the century" has been ruled against the Trump administration.
The case centered around a wastewater treatment plant in Maui, Hawaii that was pumping around 4 million gallons of sewage a day into the ground water, some of which would eventually wind up in the Pacific ocean. The core of the case that Maui County and the Trump administration argued was that the plant did not need a Clean Water Act permit if the waste was passing through groundwater before entering protected waters. This act has already caused damage to the coral reef in the region. The Supreme Court rejected that narrow interpretation of the landmark environmental law six to three.
"We do not see how Congress could have intended to create such a large and obvious loophole in one of the key regulatory innovations of the Clean Water Act," Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in the majority opinion, as Earthjustice reported.
Earthjustice, which brought the case on behalf of Maui environmental groups Hawaiʻi Wildlife Fund, Sierra Club-Maui Group, Surfrider Foundation and West Maui Preservation Association, won both the Hawaiʻi District Court and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. However, the stakes were much higher at the Supreme Court.
"If the Supreme Court endorses the county's position, it would open a massive loophole for every polluter in the country to avoid regulation of their discharges by the law that protects the nation's waterways," arguing Earthjustice attorney David Henkin said in November 2019.
The Trump administration has been consistently attempting to weaken water protections, such as its rollback of the Clean Water Rule rule granting protection to small streams and wetlands.
"This decision is a huge victory for clean water," Henkin said. "The Supreme Court has rejected the Trump administration's effort to blow a big hole in the Clean Water Act's protections for rivers, lakes and oceans."
Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Brett Kavanaugh joined Breyer in the majority opinion, while Justices Clarence Thomas, Neil Gorsuch and Samuel Alito dissented, though Alito wrote his own dissent.
"Based on the statutory text and structure, I would hold that a permit is required only when a point source discharges pollutants directly into navigable waters," Thomas wrote, according to The Associated Press.
CNN Supreme Court analyst and University of Texas School of Law professor Steve Vladeck said it would boost water-protection efforts."Compared to the argument that it does not require permits for any groundwater pollution, which the county and the three dissenting justices all argued, this result will both empower the federal government to more aggressively regulate such pollution and allow private parties to sue when that regulation fails," Vladeck told CNN.